Counterfeiting: Britain rises in fakers league: Leading sportswear makers join the companies that are losing millions to the rip-off merchants

AS THE Ireland fans cheered their heroes through the World Cup, many of those sporting the distinctive green and white strip were probably unaware that they were wearing counterfeits.

Mike Roylance, trademark protection manager for Adidas, which produces the official Ireland football strip, said: 'It is a huge problem. We have seen a lot of fake shirts in Ireland, although most of it is produced in the UK.'

Adidas estimates that it loses pounds 4m to pounds 5m a year to counterfeiting. Around 95 per cent of it is clothing, in particular football strips. And the problem is getting worse.

Anthea Wordsall of the Anti-Counterfeiting Group says the problem has worsened in the last 18 months. The group claims, as a conservative estimate, that as a direct result, legitimate businesses lose pounds 200m annually and 100,000 jobs a year are lost in the EU.

While counterfeit goods used to be associated with sweat-shops in the Far East churning out poor-quality fake Rolex watches, the situation has changed. Many of the fake goods on sale at street markets, car boot sales or through fly- pitching on the high street are produced in the UK.

Paul Carratu, managing director of Carratu International, which investigates fakes on behalf of clients, said: 'The UK has the dubious honour of producing some of the best counterfeit goods available.'

The range of counterfeit goods on sale has also grown. It is no longer purely the preserve of premium brands such as Cartier watches, Chanel perfumes and Louis Vuitton bags. The counterfeiting gangs can, and do, copy almost anything, including clothing, motor parts and, perhaps most worrying, pharmaceuticals. The Anti-Counterfeiting Group reports that many potentially lethal fake drugs, including treatment for ulcers, eye-drops and antibiotics, have been found around the world.

In an attempt to protect their brands, some companies are joining with their rivals to stamp out the fakes. In the fiercely competitive sportswear market, leading manufacturers are sharing knowledge and resources. 'All the major sports brands are acting together to pool our resources and share information on who is producing these fakes,' said Mr Roylance of Adidas.

Companies which do not have their own internal security departments are increasingly turning to outside experts such as Carratu International. The firm, which recruits its staff from the police force and intelligence community, attempts to identify the source of fake goods. 'Once we have identified it, we then stop that source with assistance from Trading Standards officers and the police, but it is a very long, slow process,' Mr Carratu said.

Mintel, best known for its market research operation, has also recently launched a counterfeit intelligence division called Counterguard. It is reluctant to name its clients, but says that it has 450 field researchers in 130 countries. The operations manager, Eric Biggs, said: 'Our field researchers act as the ears, arms and legs for our clients. They can check out products on sale in any type of outlet from hypermarkets to car boot sales. Suspect products are purchased discreetly, packed and sent back to the client for analysis.'

But even if the source of fake goods is discovered and prosecuted, the problem continues. 'The sentences handed out are just not deterrents,' Mr Carratu said. 'Some of them get off with a small fine and laugh all the way out of court.'

Fines pose little problem to many counterfeiters, as Glyn Roberts, security manager for the sportswear firm Umbro, pointed out: 'We are currently in the middle of an inquiry about T-shirts which were imported from Turkey and then printed in the UK. My estimate is that that one operation netted pounds 40,000 clear profit on one T-shirt design alone.'

Companies are now pinning their hopes on the trademark legislation expected to become law later this year. Mr Wordsall said: 'We hope that the Trademark Bill will go some way to improving the situation.'

(Photograph omitted)