What is the most counterfeit brand in the world

Piracy: The fake industry


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"I'm in Guangzhou now," writes Sebastian Köhler, a German who claims to want to get into the business of counterfeit backpacks from China. "Let me know where and when we can meet." But Bella and Jack, who have so far answered every email within a few hours, are silent. Perhaps they suspect that Sebastian Köhler is a trap, that someone is trying to use their own tricks against them.

Sebastian Köhler, that's us, a team of reporters commissioned by ZEIT and NDR. We don't know who Bella and Jack are. We hired IT forensic scientists, private detectives, and microbiological analytics experts to find out. We tried to track payment flows and mail. And we have set up Sebastian Köhler as a cover identity.

Now we are in Guangzhou, a city in the south of China. It has 35 degrees, subtropical climate. We drive around in endless high-rise canyons. 44 million people live in the region. How the hell are we supposed to find Bella and Jack? It is research that we know is almost futile. And of which we can not leave.

It all started with Anna, Christian's wife, one of the authors of this story. Almost exactly a year ago, in August 2018, she was lying in a hammock, looking at a few photos and videos on the Instagram social network. In the middle of it all she discovers an advertisement. It shows a backpack from Fjällräven, the Swedish brand with the red arctic fox in its logo. Because Anna actually needs a backpack and it is also a little cheaper than usual, she clicks on it.

Anna is now in the realm of Bella and Jack. But she doesn't know anything about it. Because the shop to which the ad is linked looks like a Fjällräven shop. You can see the logo and a few happy people exploring nature in outdoor clothing. Nothing makes Anna suspicious. She orders a turquoise backpack with pink straps from the Kånken model for 58.65 euros and pays with her credit card. A service employee thanked you for your order immediately by email and promised to send the backpack within the next four days.

500 billion dollar According to estimates, this is the amount of sales made annually with counterfeit products.

But then there is no rucksack, but, almost a month later, a letter from the main customs office in Hamburg. The handover of the rucksack, it is said in the most beautiful official German, will be suspended. "It could be a counterfeit product."

For Anna the letter comes completely unexpected. It's routine for customs. Last year his employees confiscated 5,066,261 fake products nationwide: watches, shoes, clothing, headphones, bags, perfumes, tablets, potency pills. In total, it was 50 percent more than in the previous year. Most of them came in the mail, like Anna's backpack. Behind this is a fundamental change in the counterfeiting industry. She no longer needs a physical place to sell her goods, a shop, a tourist bazaar. The business model has become digitized. The counterfeiters lure their buyers in social networks and send their products in small packages directly to the end customer.

It may look like petty crime. But the many small shipments add up to a huge problem. According to a study by the OECD, counterfeit goods worth over $ 500 billion are traded every year. The fake economy generates as much revenue as Apple and Amazon together. And it is becoming more and more global. In 2013 their share in world trade was 2.5 percent. Three years later it was already 3.3 percent. The US magazine Forbes considers the fake business to be more lucrative than drug or human trafficking. It is the "largest criminal enterprise in the world".

Providers from one country are primarily responsible: China. According to the OECD, 63 percent of counterfeits come from the People's Republic. Other estimates assume up to 80 percent. That is also a reason for the trade war between the US and China. Because the greatest damage is caused by fakes where most brand manufacturers are based: in the USA and Europe.