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The Low-Profile, High-Stakes War Against Knockoff Toys

Rachel Jones fights fake toys and baby products sold online.

Fifteen years ago, Rachel Jones invented a product called Totseat, a washable, squashable, high chair for babies that still sells all over the world. But the product almost didn’t last because, about seven years ago, phony Totseats started popping up in droves on eBay and elsewhere.  It took Jones roughly 18 months to fight off all the knockoff toys that were flooding the market. Doing so required constant vigilance and determination. Naturally, Jones came away from the experience with a poor opinion of the rip-off artists looking to profit off the intellectual property of others — often at the cost of a child’s safety. She decided that it wasn’t enough to just protect Totseat. She wants to help protect parents from counterfeit Legos, Barbies, Star Wars toys, car seats, and everything else.

On behalf of its clients, SnapDragon, the company Jones founded in Edinburgh, Scotland, identifies fake and counterfeit and knockoff kids toys and removes them from the online platforms that sell them. “We do this to protect the customer in the first instance, because fake goods are often dangerous,” explains Jones, who still serves as CEO. “Ghastly accidents happen with fake toys and nursery products so I just thought, ‘We’ve got all this expertise, let’s try and help and give the brands the power to fight back.'” Specifically, Jones was eager to help toy companies because parents looking to save money are susceptible to trickery and because these toys sometimes contain genuinely harmful ingredients. They are, in short, cheap for all the wrong reasons.

How does Jones help her customers? By providing advice and then, if the advice doesn’t work, providing muscle.

To start with, Jones recommends that inventors put three secret ingredients into their product. “By that, I mean include in your product three things that the manufacturer and a customer wouldn’t notice, unless you were asking them to look for something very specific,” she says. “That way, if somebody has a product in their hand which is not a genuine product, you can ask them, then, three very simple questions.” For instance, if it’s a piece of clothing, slip a certain color of thread into an obscure area. Or if it’s a plastic or silicon product, put some random bumps on an inside-facing piece. At a minimum, this makes products harder to copy. And if they get copied anyway, it makes copies easier to spot online.

Much like most people’s shopping these days, SnapDragon’s work mostly happens on the internet. The company has developed proprietary algorithms that scrape the e-commerce, social media, and auction websites for infringing items. Jones says the great majority of knockoff goods are sold on big names sites like Amazon and eBay, and it’s important to the online giants that they maintain a sterling reputation by shooing away the fakes. As a result, they listen to SnapDragon. They don’t want to invite scandal.

But the secret sauce to SnapDragon’s success might not be expertise in searching the web or filing trademark paperwork, but rather international relations. The 19-person company employs people from 13 different countries. Why? Because language and cultural skills are vital for tracking down all the copycats. “Although the algorithms help, you need language skills to negotiate with some of the platforms,” says Jones. “We’re reporting not just in English, obviously, but Chinese, Russian, Turkish, French, and German.”

Despite having a reputation for absconding with other countries intellectual property, Jones says that she finds it generally easy to engage with the Chinese companies that manufacture counterfeit or rip-off products. “We find that if you engage with the right people, in the right language, in the right way, and that you are protecting bonafide, genuine authorized and registered intellectual property, you tend not to have a problem in terms of pushbacks against takedowns,” she says. That said, Jones is quick to tell her clients to file for Chinese trademarks. “There are a lot of people in China who keep an eye on trademark filings around the world and so sometimes people find that somebody in China has possibly filed exactly their trademark before they’ve had a chance.” Better, she says, to get there early so any future take-down requests are backed up by Chinese law.

Jones says it’s also important that companies get their names established early — not only to safeguard their goods, but also to protect their customers.

“If you think you’re saving $50 dollars with this drop ship product coming in from China, you need to think about what the potential consequences are,” she says. “Toys are sometimes full of carcinogenic materials and they are being given to small children. People think they’re saving a bit of money on something that looks a bit like a Frozen doll, but it isn’t Frozen, they’re fake. And they are dangerous.”