More than 1,200 illegal internet shopping websites that have made millions of pounds for criminals have been shut down by Scotland Yard in the biggest operation of its kind in Britain.
The sites claimed to sell heavily discounted designer goods, including Ugg Australia Boots, ghd hair straighteners and jewellery from Tiffany & Co and Links of London. Buyers either received counterfeit products or nothing at all. It is also likely that their credit card details have been used to fund other illegal activity. It is estimated that British shoppers have spent millions on the sites but police are convinced that by shutting them down consumers have been saved millions more.
Intelligence gathered by the Metropolitan Police’s Central e-Crime Unit (PCeU) showed that the majority of the sites were registered in Asia, despite their UK domain names, using false or misleading details.
This made it “almost impossible” for victims to complain to the source about poor quality, counterfeited items or goods not received, said an officer. But after several complaints were received by Trading Standards officers, Operation Papworth was set up.
The PCeU worked with Nominet — the body responsible for UK domain name registrations and one of the world’s largest internet registries — as well as Consumer Direct, Trading Standards, the Office of Fair Trading and manufacturers, to help to identify the fraudulent websites.
The PCeU deregistered 1,219 domain names. Detective Superintendent Charlie McMurdie, head of the PCeU, said: “Fraudsters target the victim’s desire to buy designer goods at reduced prices, particularly at this time of year.
“The risk begins when your desire to purchase blinds your judgment or leads you to illegal websites. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.”
She added: “People in the UK genuinely believe that .co.uk websites are safe and are more trusting of them. In this case, however, we were able to identify that all of the sites which were taken down were registered from outside the UK, frequently using false or misleading details.
“Members of the public therefore had no way of being able to trace who had mis-sold to them in the first place. Potentially they had also harvested their online identity. That’s a real concern, as it is crucial to keep your financial identity safe.
“When people put their details on to a website and it is being controlled from outside the UK by criminal networks, then there is the obvious potential that those details won’t just be used in that single fraud. They could be sold on or used in further criminal activity.
“The vast majority of the sites we’ve taken down have been registered from Asia, despite their UK domain names. “The focus here is to make the UK the safest place to trade online. We hope we can use this to promote best practice with international partners.”
Lesley Cowley, chief executive of Nominet, added: “We received clear instructions from the PCeU to take down the .co.uk domain names which have been under investigation for criminal activity. We worked closely with the police and our registrars to quickly carry out the instruction to shut down access to these sites.”
James Brokenshire, Shadow Home Office Minister, welcomed the crackdown but said that the overall approach needed to be better co-ordinated: “The police estimate that an online crime is committed every 10 seconds, yet the Government’s response has been pedestrian.
“We believe that greater co-ordination and emphasis on both prevention and enforcement is needed to stop more people becoming victims of computer crime.”