Richemont identified TradeKey as a significant purveyor of counterfeit goods in 2010, according to Holmes and Kayser. Posing as Ray West (an evil alter ego that Holmes used as a fake identity), Holmes opened a free account and began making purchases on the web site. He was able to make high-dollar purchases of lots of counterfeit goods. The shipments confirmed to Holmes that counterfeit goods, such as the Chloe purse pictured at the top, were freely being sold on the TradeKey web site. He sold and bought counterfeit watches and jeans, Holmes said.
Once he built up his reputation on the site, Holmes, still posing undercover as West, asked if he could become a Gold Key member, Holmes said. He paid $3,000 and received access to his own personal TradeKey representative. The representative gave him tips on how to market products on the site. The rep also taught him how to sell counterfeit goods, known as “replicas,” Holmes said. The representative said that TradeKey relied on counterfeit sales as a large part of its revenues, Holmes said. As a Gold Key member, Holmes could take out special paid ads promoting his goods.
According to the court documents, Holmes found more than 6,000 sellers offering branded products on TradeKey.com, including more than 2,400 sellers with listings for Chloe-branded goods, 200 sellers of Dunhill-branded goods, 850 selles of Panerai-branded goods, 500 sellers of Mont Blanc-branded goods, and 1,900 sellers of Cartier branded goods. None of those sellers was authorized, Richemont asserted. Holmes himself bought eight Chloe handbags, which were listed at rock-bottom prices. He also bought an Alfred Dunhill belt, a Dunhill dress watch, five Panerai watches, two Mont Blanc watches, and four Cartier watches. Pictures of the goods proved they were fakes.
TradeKey did not make money from a cut of transactions, but it did make money through the ads and memberships, the court filings said. Using TradeKey, Holmes could contact customers about doing transactions with fake goods. He placed an ad on the TradeKey.com homepage. He used the word “replica” in that ad, but for the homepage, TradeKey.com took the precaution of removing the word from the listing. However, Kayser noted that TradeKey.com still permitted the ad to run on its homepage.
“We made a whole bunch of purchases first showing how easy it was,” Holmes said. “We extracted tens of thousands of listings with counterfeit marks. We made purchases from the biggest sellers. They would sell 1,000 or 10,000 at a time.”
The TradeKey representatives didn’t ask Holmes to meet them in person. TradeKey’s sales department had “replica products” and “replica retention” divisions, according to the court’s order.
Kayser said, “TradeKey was operating a virtual swap meet for counterfeits.”
The investigation lasted for a year. Prior to the investigation, Holmes made a name for himself as one of the investigators who tracked down pirates of Call of Duty games.
IPCybercrime went to TradeKey’s U.S. Internet service provider, Liquid Web in Michigan, with an order to seize servers. The investigators seized data from 42 servers and more than 100 hard drives. The court found that TradeKey.com operated mirror sites, saudicommerce.com and b2bfreezone.com.
Holmes said that TradeKey had found a way to steer internet searches toward its handbags and other replica goods via inserting the word “replica” into the meta field for a search. While most of the undercover work was plain gumshoe tactics, Holmes said he has to incorporate technology into all of his investigations. The fact that TradeKey used an ISP in the U.S. made the investigation easier. But that also gave TradeKey much better search engine optimization on Google.
At one point, Holmes said he was worried about whether he was being followed. His team is relatively small, and he investigates counterfeiting and piracy for brands in fashion and gaming.
Holmes said Richemont’s legal team played a big role.
“They had a strategy and it was brilliant,” he said. “They took it nice and slow, not missing anything.”
The downside for Holmes? He has had to retire his alter ego, Ray West, from duty. He grew emotionally attached to that false identity over the years.
“He was my evil twin,” he joked.