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Pierce Egerton
Pierce Egerton
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Beware illegal online knock-offs this holiday season

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If you’re shopping online for a genuine Louis Vuitton handbag, it’s probably not a good idea to buy it at a website with a name like “louisvuitton-bags-forcheap.com.”

For most people, the Christmas season is a time of joy, celebration and giving. But for criminals who peddle counterfeit merchandise, it’s a time of taking.

In a recent sting called “Operation in Our Sites,” authorities seized 150 website domain names that were selling and distributing illegal “knock-offs.” This sting was the eighth phase of the operation, and was the biggest raid to date. The operation, a joint effort by several agencies led by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), has seized a total of 350 domain names since its launch in June 2010.

image by fairfaxcounty

Seized counterfeit watches

"The sale of counterfeit goods cheats consumers and robs legitimate businesses — both large and small — of the fruits of their hard-earned work," said Assistant Atty. Gen. Lanny A. Breuer, who oversees the criminal division of the Justice Department, one agency involved in the sting. "We will not tolerate those who seek to profit by abusing the Internet and stealing intellectual property at the expense of authors, artists and inventors. The Department of Justice will continue to work aggressively to combat intellectual property crime."

To give you an idea of what these site names look like, you can find a list of them here.

Counterfeit goods are a huge business, with profits going to organized crime and even to fund terrorism. In fiscal year 2010, goods with a suggested retail price of $1.4 billion were seized – and that was before they entered the United States. Footwear was the top product seized accounting for almost a quarter of the value of the seized illegal merchandise.

China continues to be the No. 1 source country for counterfeit products, accounting for 66 percent of goods seized.

One website provides a list of steps you can take and rules to remember so as not to not be taken in by these websites. Rule No. 1?

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

You should be suspicious if you find a pair of jeans that normally retail for $300, for only $50 online.

Another rule was: Trust your gut. If there is something fishy about the site, just walk away.

Other things to think about:

Examine the site closely. Beware of sites with poor quality photos, spelling mistakes and lack of terms.

If you are purchasing items from an auction site, see how many identical products they have available. For example, if they have too many of an expensive custom-made handbag, the handbags are probably fake.

Also, if a site posts information about something called the Internet Privacy Act, that’s a dead giveaway. The act doesn’t exist. The reference is used by websites conducting illegal activities to try to avoid prosecution and to keep investigators from entering the site.