Investigation Basics: Investigating Third-Party Online Sellers

Angelica Valentine

The following is a guest post from David Howell, director of brand protection for the online seller enforcement group at VorysSater, Seymour and Pease LLP. 

 

Manufacturers attempting to control distribution, including through online channels, know they must actively monitor third-party websites and marketplaces. 

By keeping tabs on these channels, they can identify possible instances of the unauthorized sale of their products. Effective monitoring tools for brands can be extremely useful on that front. Once identified, manufacturers can take the necessary action to try to stop the sellers from engaging in unauthorized online sales.  

It is important that manufacturers have a plan in place to tackle unauthorized sales and not get caught up in a game of “whack-a-mole.” For purposes of this post, let’s assume that a manufacturer already has a good plan in place for addressing online sales when rogue sellers are identified. What we will focus on here is the process of uncovering the identity of unauthorized third-party internet sellers.  

Before being able to take any actions or start enforcement efforts against unauthorized online sellers, it is necessary for manufacturers to identify the sellers. When manufacturers discover unauthorized sales, they must assess the situation and ask some questions. For example: What products are being sold? Where are they listed? And who is offering them for sale? 

This is the first article in a series of three focusing on the last question: the who. Today we will cover some of the basics of investigating third-party online sellers.  

The second article, which will be published on Vorys’ Online Seller Enforcement blog, will discuss researching marketplace review websites and social media. And the third article, also on the Vorys blog, will provide an overview of product buys and other searches.   

Identifying Online Sellers 

Investigating and identifying online sellers is crucial for several reasons. A manufacturer may be able to determine if a seller is one of its authorized retailers selling on an unauthorized channel (i.e., an online marketplace) or whether the seller is an unauthorized, grey market seller. If a manufacturer is dealing with an unauthorized seller, it also needs to try to determine the source of the seller’s product. Solving this product diversion issue can be an important step to prevent future unauthorized sales.  

By identifying sellers, it is much easier for manufacturers to put an end to those unwanted sales. Such sales may be outside authorized channels and/or below the manufacturer’s established minimum advertised price. This type of diversion hurts the brands integrity and disrupts the sales channel.   

Before diving in too deeply, a manufacturer or its investigations team will want to start with a thorough search of the website/marketplace where the products are listed. Conducting this due diligence will provide a better understanding of the entire scope of the issue.  

The idea here is to look for any potentially identifying information. The information may include the obvious, such as a name, address or phone number on the “storefront” or “about us” pages. It could also include something subtle, such as a logo. If nothing else, the username or storefront name can still prove useful.  

Some websites, such as eBay, list the locations (i.e., city and state) of products. That little tidbit of information can go a long way toward discovering a seller’s identity. Another potentially beneficial attribute of eBay is that it provides sellers’ history, including past User IDs. Some User ID scans provide clues, such as someone’s name and/or location. You can then conduct a cursory search against those. 

Moreover, for anyone who regularly investigates online sellers’ identities, a past seller name or User ID can ring a bell. Even what might seem like a dead end can be an important piece to the puzzle. By searching a storefront/username, one may be able to generate some helpful search results.  

Running Searches  

Any information uncovered from a storefront’s page can be researched on search engines. Googling phone numbers or usernames can often lead to business details, for example. If Google is light on details, don’t forget to try other search engines, such as Bing. Search results can also vary on desktops and mobile, so also try your searches on a mobile device or tablet. These types of cross searching only take moments and can produce valuable information to reference.   

Whitepages Premium is a relatively inexpensive tool that can be helpful. On this site, an investigating party can run reverse phone and address searches, as well as search for someone by name and city/state. This is a great resource for validating found information.  

The Whitepages results are not 100 percent accurate. However, when the information is compared with other sites to confirm a seller’s identity, it can be useful to look up a seller’s contact information.  

Another strategy using Google is to conduct a reverse image search. If you visit images.google.com, you can upload a photo (e.g., a seller’s logo) and see if any matches appear. Matches can include websites, social media profiles or another storefront. 

On Google Chrome, an investigator can also right-click an image and select “Search Google for image.” Sometimes, you get nothing. Other times, you can get some great results. The important thing is to dig deep and not give up if there is not any contact information on a seller’s page.  

As mentioned earlier, this is the first in a series of three articles addressing specific tactics manufacturers can use to identify unauthorized sellers. The additional articles will appear on Vorys’ Online Seller Enforcement blog 

 

About David Howell 

David Howell is the director of brand protection for the online seller enforcement group at Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease LLP. His experience includes online brand management and enforcement for more than 350 Fortune 500 companies. David has also worked with several international Fortune 2000 companies to help them protect their intellectual property, trademarks and corporate domain names from fraud, infringement and various threats to their brand. 

About VorysSater, Seymour and Pease 

 Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease LLP was founded in 1909 and, over the last century-plus, has grown into one of the largest law firms in the country – ranking as one of the 200 largest U.S. law firms, according to American Lawyer magazine. In recent years, Vorys — through its Online Enforcement Group — has worked with hundreds of clients across the country, developing unique cost-effective solutions for companies and professionals being damaged or attacked online. The group offers and implements cutting edge strategies that combine legal, investigative, and technological techniques to efficiently and effectively protect clients’ online distribution channels, trademarks, and brands. Vorys not only addresses MAP violations and unauthorized sellers, but also traffic diversion schemes, misleading advertisements, online defamation attacks, and other brand threats.

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