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Cyber Monday sting hits counterfeit sports apparel sites

Federal agents in Baltimore seized 36 commercial websites on Monday as part of an international operation to stop fraudulent online sales this holiday season, alleging that the sites have been selling counterfeit goods — including athletic gear bearing the copyrighted logos of pro sports teams.

Dubbed "Operation Cyber Monday 3," the international effort involved law enforcement agencies from across the United States and Europe, and seized a total of 101 website domains that allegedly sold counterfeit sports gear, jewelry, shoes, movies and other items copyrighted by brand-name companies. It was the authorities' third campaign of its kind in as many years.

The Baltimore Homeland Security Investigations office, under the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and in partnership with the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center in Washington, seized more websites than any other participating agency in the United States.

Of the 36 it seized, 33 purported to be sales hubs for professional football, hockey and basketball teams in the United States and Canada, including steelersjerseystore.com, montrealcanadiensproshop.com and authenticlakersshop.com, officials said.

The three other sites were cheap-jordans-china.com, wholesale-sneaker.com and obamasell.com, officials said.

Documents related to the seizures are sealed, and the owners of the websites were not identified.

During the operation, agents purchased items from the websites, confirmed with the copyright holders that they were counterfeit and then obtained seizure orders for the domain names from federal magistrate judges, officials said. They also made one arrest.

The overall operation involved agencies in the United States, Belgium, Denmark, France, Romania and the United Kingdom, as well as Europol.

"Our partnerships enable us to go after criminals who are duping unsuspecting shoppers all over the world. This is not an American problem, it is a global one and it is a fight we must win," Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton said in a statement.

As part of the operation, federal agents are also attempting to seize more than $175,000 from PayPal accounts used by the targeted websites, officials said.

Officials with eBay Inc., which owns PayPal, said they are cooperating.

"PayPal and eBay Inc. pride ourselves in going above and beyond in the fight against the illegal online trafficking of counterfeit goods by partnering with law enforcement and rights owners globally, and we hope that this is fair warning to criminals that the Internet is not a safe place to try and sell fake goods," Tod Cohen, eBay's vice president and deputy general counsel of government relations, said in a statement.

The same Baltimore Homeland Security Investigations office participated in "Bitter Pill," another international operation that last month seized nearly 700 websites allegedly linked to the sale of counterfeit pharmaceuticals.

The seizure of online domains has been criticized in the past by digital rights groups, which contend they violate the due-process rights of website operators and accidentally ensnare legitimate operators who are then left without their domains through drawn-out legal battles.

Officials say federal law allows the operators to contest the forfeiture of their property in federal court.

If no challenge is made, the domains automatically become the property of the government, officials said.

krector@baltsun.com

twitter.com/rectorsun

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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