Terror groups increasingly are turning to the lucrative trade in counterfeit goods — from brake pads to music CDs — to finance their operations, but governments are only slowly waking up to the threat, the head of Interpol warned Tuesday.
Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble (search) cited the seizure of $1.2 million worth of counterfeit German brake pads and shock absorbers in Lebanon last October. A subsequent inquiry found that profits were destined for supporters of Hezbollah (search), considered a terrorist organization by Washington.
"Right now we're at the tip of the iceberg," Noble told The Associated Press in an interview at the First Global Congress on Combatting Counterfeiting (search). "If law enforcement and governments focused on it more we'd find more evidence of it."
Last year, Danish customs intercepted a container filled with counterfeit shampoos and other toiletries allegedly sent by a member of Al Qaeda (search). Danish, British and U.S. investigators were unable to determine how much, if any, of the profits went directly to the terror group.
Paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland and Colombia's main rebel army, FARC, also benefit from sales of counterfeit goods, including CDs and cigarettes, he said.
"There's evidence and it's increasing," said Noble, adding it was almost inevitable that terrorists would follow organized crime into the counterfeiting business.
"It's a low-risk, high-profit crime area that for most governments and most police forces is not a high priority. And therefore criminals are more likely to want to get involved in this area rather than drug trafficking."
The Brussels-based World Customs Organization, which organized the congress, estimated trade in counterfeit products exceeded 6 percent of global trade last year, or more than $500 billion.
That includes an estimated 10 percent of all pharmaceuticals sold (up to 60 percent in developing countries), 10 percent of car parts sold in Europe and 2 percent of the 26 million airline parts installed each year around the world.
"The general public often views these infractions as 'victimless crimes' limited to luxury goods," said World Customs Organization secretary general Michel Danet. "However, we all know that counterfeiting not only harms the economy and society but can also seriously affect consumers and even kill them."
Business leaders sponsoring the event said more had to be done to raise public awareness — and rejection — of a problem that Unilever Foods marketing president Anthony Simon described as having reached "crisis dimensions."
"Suddenly this is a huge criminal industry," he said. Counterfeits of his company's brand, ranging from Dove soap to Calvin Klein perfumes, are rising 30 percent a year and spreading from parts of Asia, Russia and the Middle East to Latin America and Africa.
Yet Noble, Interpol's first American chief, said he felt "no pressure" from governments to step up anti-counterfeiting efforts. Counterfeiters also generally face a low risk of prosecution if caught and relatively light penalties if convicted.
"The effort going into fighting the problem pales in comparison to the profit and the harm caused," he said. "There does have to be a change in philosophy in terms of the laws, but also in terms of the law enforcement."
Noble is trying to drum up $1.7 million from the agency's 181 member countries for an initiative to document the scale of the problem globally and assist in combatting it.
In the meantime, he said, governments should make more use of existing Interpol resources, such as a nearly 2-year-old database for stolen travel documents that was endorsed by Group of Eight ministers two weeks ago.
Only 40 countries have signed on — including the United States just this month — but already 1.5 million documents are listed and agencies checking it have had a 10 percent "hit rate," he said.
"Intelligence gathering and intelligence sharing and then acting in a coordinated fashion is the future," he said.