Seller beware: You may not have created the coupons you’re hawking on eBay, but if they turn out to be counterfeit, you could be the one in trouble while the actual counterfeiter gets off scot-free.
That seems to be the case so far in the federal lawsuit that snack maker Link Snacks filed earlier this year. The search for the source of the fraudulent coupons in question has gone cold, but the company now knows the names of plenty of sellers it can choose to go after instead.
In “Link Snacks, Inc. v. John Does 1-100”, filed in March, the maker of Jack Link’s beef jerky sought to stop the sale of counterfeit coupons for its products. For several years, fraudulent coupons offering a free package of any Jack Link’s product, with a value of up to $13, have been showing up for sale on eBay (see the counterfeit notice on the Coupon Information Corporation website). The sellers, Link Snacks alleged, had engaged in “an interstate scheme to infringe on Link Snacks’ trademarks.” Therefore, Link Snacks said, it was entitled to damages of up to $2 million – per coupon.
Only problem is, the company didn’t know who to sue. So it sued a bunch of “John Does” and served a subpoena on eBay to give up the sellers’ names and contact information. That way, Link Snacks said, it could contact the sellers and get them not only to stop selling the coupons, but also to provide information about who was creating all the counterfeits in the first place.
Link Snacks has refused repeated requests for comment since the lawsuit was filed. But documents submitted to the court on Friday provide the first update on the progress of the case so far.
eBay did, in fact, hand over the names, email addresses and mailing addresses of some “40-50 sellers”. Those sellers were subsequently surprised to find a packet in the mail from Link Snacks’ attorneys. “It has come to our attention that you have sold and/or are continuing to sell fake coupons for Jack Link’s brand meat snacks via eBay,” the correspondence read. “This letter is to demand that you immediately cease and desist.” The letter went on to inform the recipient that, having identified a number of the “John Does”, Link Snacks would now be able to “amend its complaint to name you as a defendant in the lawsuit.”
Several of the sellers responded, Link Snacks reported, and “commonality emerged as to the identity of the manufacturer and producers of the coupons”. Independently, several sellers said they got the fake coupons from two men with ethnic Russian names and Illinois mailing addresses. The men had eBay user ID’s, but at least one reseller said after establishing contact with them via eBay, she was then contacted offline with a much more comprehensive emailed list of coupons they had available for sale. Among them were the counterfeit Jack Link’s coupons. One reseller said he purchased 400 of the fraudulent coupons, in order to resell them on eBay.
Link Snacks later got in contact with an attorney for meat company Applegate Farms, which had identified the same two men as the potential source of counterfeit coupons for its own products (see the counterfeit notice on the Coupon Information Corporation website). It also provided Link Snacks with the name of a third potential suspect.
But efforts to track down the creators of the counterfeits have hit a dead end. On Link Snacks’ request, police in Lake Zurich, Illinois visited the addresses that the resellers had provided, and found that the homes there were foreclosed and uninhabited. It’s unclear whether the coupon providers had ever lived there, or were just using false return addresses in their correspondence with buyers.
Link Snacks had 120 days from the time its lawsuit was filed, to name all the “John Does” it planned on suing. Friday marked the 119th day. So the company has requested a 90-day extension, to give it more time to track down the counterfeiters. If the request is denied, or the counterfeiters are never found, the company could either drop the case – or go after the resellers.
That possibility has some resellers a little freaked out. “I will be more than happy to cooperate and help you by answering all of your questions,” one eBay seller contacted by Link Snacks wrote calmly in response. But in an online legal advice forum, someone who appears to be the same seller implored, “Please help, I had no idea that the coupons that I purchased and then resold on eBay were fake coupons.” The appeal for help continues, “I am very worried… what should I do now?” A second reseller pleaded with Link Snacks for mercy. “I’m sorry for this,” he wrote. “Please, I don’t want to be in any trouble.”
One avenue that Link Snacks may or may not have explored, is any possible connection with the SavvyShopperSite case in Phoenix. Exactly one year ago this past Wednesday, you will likely recall, three women were arrested for selling tens of millions of dollars worth of counterfeit coupons (read previous stories about the case here). Like the Jack Link’s coupons, many of the counterfeits they sold were for free products. Police also said they were produced overseas. Plus, the women had a similar modus operandi as the men Link Snacks is seeking – they sold many of their coupons on eBay, but only their “best customers” were invited to see the full list of coupons they had available elsewhere.
And an internet archive of their now-defunct website shows that, at one time, they were offering the very same counterfeit Jack Link’s coupons for sale.
In that case, the women who provided the coupons ultimately pleaded guilty to criminal charges. All three face financial penalties and the ringleader is serving jail time. But those who bought, used or resold the fraudulent coupons that the women provided, were left alone.
Those who resold the Jack Link’s coupons can only hope the same will be true in their case. But first, Link Snacks has to find the counterfeiters. And the clock is ticking.