Purdue’s battles with counterfeit pop-up online shops recently became public after a tip from a Purdue official.
Purdue Athletics Social Media Director Chris Forman tweeted a screenshot of a Facebook ad for the shop “Amazing T-Shirts” on Sept. 20. The ad showed former Purdue men’s basketball center Matt Haarms holding a T-shirt featuring the text “One Nation Under God,” America-themed imagery and photos of Purdue basketball players. Purdue’s trademark department filed a cease and desist order shortly thereafter.
The department has a protocol in place for trademark infractions like this. It includes an investigation from the manager of trademarks and licensing at Purdue, Erika Austin. Austin said her department deals with these infractions about twice a week.
The counterfeit shops are taken seriously for a number of reasons, but Austin emphasized that the royalties from official merchandising go directly toward student-athletes’ scholarships. She also made it clear that the most threatening infractions are the ones that contradict the ideals that Purdue has for itself.
“We want to make sure the Purdue brand is respected,” Austin said. “If (a product) isn’t licensed, we can’t guarantee that the consumer will receive a high-quality product.”
Counterfeiting is not just a problem for Purdue. Austin said her department is in constant communication with Big Ten universities.
“We communicate with other universities to see if (the trademark infraction) is a common issue across other universities or if it is unique to us,” Austin said.
Eugene Spafford, a Purdue professor and fellow in the Association for Computing Machinery and Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, said search engines have internal databases dependent on “cookies,” which match certain search patterns to make results more relevant and streamlined toward individual interests.
These cookies allow pop-up shops to cater to individual interests to make it seem as if they are authentic and sponsored by individual universities. This means that these shops will often change the merchandise based on your search history.
Spafford said it does not take an expert to make a convincing counterfeit shop.
“People can just copy information to try to fool you,” Spafford said. “You only need a moderate amount of skill to create a good site that would fool most people.”
There is likely a person behind each of these counterfeiting instances, according to Spafford.
“You can build a program that can build a fake shop, but a human would need to put the finishing touches to make it look convincing,” Spafford says. “AI isn’t quite at that point yet.”
When asked about the instance from Sep. 20, Spafford said the only thing he could conclude is that Haarms was not originally holding the T-shirt, evidenced by a margin around the hands indicating the image was altered. The image containing the shirt did appear to be manipulated, and it is notable that Haarms’ image is extremely similar to his most recent Purdue roster headshot.
Austin declined to comment on the individual incident, so it is unclear if the issue has been resolved.