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A criminal enterprise

Some illegal software puts money in the hands of serious criminals

Giles Speid with a haul of counterfeit DVDsCopied software is commonplace at car boot sales, markets and the like. Often it's just being sold to make the trader a bit of cash on the side. But sometimes it's more serious. The profits from supplying counterfeit software are so attractive that they attract career criminals - and the intimidation and violence that follows.

"In my car I carry a stab proof vest - we all do," says Giles Speid, "Five years ago, we wouldn't have considered it."

Speid is the principal trading standards enforcement officer for the London Borough of Brent and Harrow. On his patch are hundreds of small shops, and street traders selling pirate CDs, DVDs and software in pubs and bars. There's also Wembley Market - where Speid says that at some busy times of year, 90% of the goods on sale are counterfeit.

His job is to confiscate the goods and find out who's selling them - and he is disturbed by what he finds. It's a large-scale, organised criminal business, he says. "People say it's only �5 for a CD-ROM. But if his bag has 300 discs in it, the profit is 300 times �5, so where is that going? We come across criminals who don't want to lose their stuff and they are prepared to fight for it - not just against Trading Standards Officers, but the police too."

With his stab vest under a denim jacket, Speid patrols Wembley Market, sometimes elbowing his way past enthusiastic buyers so he can confiscate pirated goods. "If we turn a blind eye to piracy, we're funding the criminals who plough money back into activities like drug smuggling and fraud", he says. "We've done surveys of people who shop at Wembley, and they see this as a white collar crime," he says, "They don't want to challenge their own morality and admit that it's contributing to a bigger problem."

Pirates and paramilitaries

There's clear evidence of the link between organised crime, violence and piracy in Northern Ireland, where former terrorists have flooded the market with counterfeit goods. One quarter of all the counterfeits seized in the UK are found in Northern Ireland. "It's a case of 'here's one for me, and here's one for the cause'. They aren't necessarily going out buying guns [with the profits], but it may be a Mercedes and a holiday, and the money is also invested in buying drugs, that kind of crime," says retired Detective Superintendent Andy Sproule, until recently the head of the organised crime squad for the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Quote�When the police raided Ingliston market in Edinburgh in 2003, they found clear links to terrorism.�End Quote

"There are the individuals who would be the brains behind it, technical people who when they are not building mortars are building multi-bay CD burners. There are enforcers, who would ensure that the pitch at a market was left alone to do business. There are investors, who can take care of the money and make sure that the Assets Recovery Agency [the government body with the power to confiscate the proceeds of crime] can't get their hands on it. And there are individuals who have skills in smuggling."

According to Northern Ireland's Organised Crime Task Force (OCTF), in 2003/2004 the police seized �7,625,000 of counterfeits. Of that, �5,175,000 - around two-thirds - was made up of games, music, films and software. It reports that "Paramilitary gangs carry out 80% of organised intellectual property crime in Northern Ireland. Both Loyalist and Republican gangs are equally heavily involved."

The Police Service of Northern Ireland has identified 230 organised crime gangs, of which 85 it considers 'top-level' gangs. "These generate large criminal profits, are violent, and many employ specialist techniques to run, protect and enhance their criminal enterprises," says the OCTF, which has traced their criminal contacts to Turkey and Thailand.

The paramilitary activity isn't restricted to piracy in Northern Ireland. When the police raided Ingliston market in Edinburgh in 2003, they found clear links to terrorism. "The Ulster Volunteer force was behind much of what we seized," said a police spokesman at the time, "they supply the cash and the know-how to Scottish criminals and then cream off the profits."

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Everyone loves a bargain

Raymond Leinster, FACT"It's perverse, but everybody loves a bargain," says Raymond Leinster, Director General of the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT). He is another veteran of policing counterfeiting in Northern Ireland who is now attempting to bring the skills he learned to cutting piracy in the rest of the UK. Selling counterfeits is a good way to create support for criminal gangs in the community, he warns, and leads to their other activities - like selling drugs - being tolerated. "Socially, it's good for them to be seen as providing goods at a cheap price. They are just the people with the acumen and the sophistication to do it."

Today, the covert production, shipping and distribution of counterfeit CD-ROMs is an extremely sophisticated business, which in many parts of the world has attracted the expertise of drug smugglers. In 2001, Bangkok police found an illegal disc copying plant, but couldn't figure out how the discs were moved in and out - until they discovered a metre-wide tunnel with an electric rail system that ended under the sink of a nearby house.

In Hong Kong in April 1999, police discovered that pirates were using old drug-smuggling tricks to ship discs: the smugglers sealed them in oil drums and dropped them in the sea to be picked up later. To outwit the Hong Kong police, the pirates even built a disc smuggling submarine which could be towed behind a fishing boat - with HK$5 million of counterfeit discs in it.

These high-tech, high-budget methods prove that although the pirated software bought at a boot-sale looks innocuous, it puts money in the pockets of entirely disreputable and unpleasant organisations.

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