A new scheme aims to protect consumers and small businesses from the growing trade in fake goods on social media 'buy-and-sell' groups.
The Real Deal Online programme aims to create greater awareness among group administrators of their legal responsibility to prevent the promotion and sale of counterfeit goods and other illicit products.
The programme, which will be rolled out at a local level by trading standards services, establishes a process for them to contact administrators of such groups and help them run a fake-free group.
Administrators are invited to follow the Real Deal Online Code of Practice.
It requires group administrators to welcome local trading standards officers as members of the group and agree to five simple steps:
1. To prohibit the sale of counterfeit and other illicit goods.
Most shoppers and the administrators of buy-sell groups would be horrified to think that they may, unwittingly, be funding organised crime.Mike Andrews, National Trading Standards eCrime Team
2. To act on information from intellectual property rights owners and their representatives who highlight the sale of illegal goods.
3. To notify trading standards if they believe that illegal goods are being sold within the group and to exclude the sellers of these goods.
4. To highlight warnings and advice notices posted by trading standards.
5. To make sure that all members of the group are aware of its fake-free policy.
Groups that agree to follow the code will be allowed to display the Real Deal logo, which will act as a visual assurance to shoppers and traders that it is a fake-free shopping zone.
The new initiative has been developed by the National Markets Group for IP Protection (NMG) in conjunction with the National Trading Standards eCrime Team (NTSeCT).
It is a natural extension of the NMG's Real Deal campaign, which has been in place at physical markets and car boot fairs for nearly 10 years.
Graham Mogg, chairman of the National Markets Group for IP Protection, said: "Online and social media marketplaces are a growing phenomenon, offering many economic and social benefits.
"Just like markets and car boot fairs in the physical world, local buy-sell groups on social media platforms can provide great bargains and a friendly, lively environment for individuals to trade with each other.
"However, as online and social media marketplaces are not uniformly regulated, they can offer easy opportunities for those who wish to stay below the radar and trade illegally, particularly in counterfeits and copyright infringing products.
"When illicit traders move into a local selling group, a whole host of problems follow: consumers are ripped off and sold inferior, potentially dangerous goods; revenue is lost from the economy to the black market; and often the trade in fakes is linked to the funding of organised crime."
The industry has already had some success against the fakers in Operation Jasper, a UK-wide enforcement operation targeting the sale of counterfeit goods on social media.
It has resulted in the issue of more than 100 warrants and take-down of 12,000 adverts for fake goods on social media selling groups.
A raid by trading standards found counterfeit goods bearing 26 trademarks, including Chanel, Superdry, Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Nike, Converse, Abercrombie & Fitch, Ted Baker, Gucci, Prada, Superdry, Ugg, Jimmy Choo and Hugo Boss.
The items were being sold through a Facebook account, and officers calculated that had they all been sold at the prices offered on the Facebook page, they would have netted in the region of £46,000.
If genuine, their approximate retail value would have been £300,000-£500,000. The individual concerned received an 18-month jail sentence, suspended for two years, and was ordered to do 15 days of unpaid work.
Mike Andrews, National Co-ordinator of the National Trading Standards eCrime Team, said: "Most shoppers and the administrators of buy-sell groups would be horrified to think that they may, unwittingly, be funding organised crime.
"And many administrators are not aware that, ultimately, they could be held responsible for allowing illegal products to be advertised by members of their group.
"The Real Deal Online programme is designed to help. It offers anyone running a local selling group the opportunity to work closely with participating trading standards services who will help them to introduce procedures to deter illicit traders from joining the group and causing harm.
"Introducing the Real Deal Code of Practice and displaying the logo is a reassurance for members of a group that it is a safe place to buy and sell.
"It also enables the administrator of a group to send a strong 'keep out' message to any counterfeiting con-men who may try to infiltrate the group, and who have no scruples about ripping off consumers, selling unsafe products or damaging local businesses."
Already, 24 local authority trading standards services across the UK have expressed interest in introducing the Real Deal Online programme.