How Alibaba uses big data to combat fake cigarettes and pesticide (updated)

Fake products are a definite thorn in the flesh of Alibaba, China’s largest e-commerce company. Alibaba has developed cutting-edge technology to counter the problem, and set up a 2,000-employee division to crack down on counterfeit goods.

An incident that happened back in April initiated the crackdown on fake goods this year. Back then, Alibaba spotted a network selling counterfeit Samsung RAM devices, involving three online stores, whose sales revenue over three months totalled more than RMB one million (USD 144,000), according to figures provided to ACT by Alibaba.

The visible online part is only the tip of the counterfeit RAM device iceberg. After its discovery, local police spent three months investigating; they eventually raided 13 manufacturing and sales sites, and confiscated over 15,000 counterfeit RAM devices valued at more than RMB 120 million.

Cases for fake RAMs.
Cases for fake RAMs.

Alibaba is haunted by counterfeit products. The International Anticounterfeiting Coalition, a well-known anti-counterfeiting group, in May revoked Alibaba’s membership over concerns from international brands and the dropout of membership from companies, including Tiffany and Gucci.

In an effort to raise investors’ confidence in Alibaba, Jack Ma, Alibaba’s executive chairman, in June assured investors that the company would be the champion if there were a to be a fake product spotting competition held held between Alibaba’s Tmall, its rival, and offline companies. As part of the endeavor, the company have actively participated Operation Cloud Sword, an effort by the local government of China’s Zhejiang province to tackle the issue of rampant counterfeit products.

To fight the battle, Alibaba has developed scanning and detection models powered by big data, it claims. The models detect abnormal online stores on Alibaba’s e-commerce platforms, including Taobao, by analyzing a variety of factors, including the complexity of online stores, IP addresses, and abnormal customer reviews.

According to Alibaba, stores that sell fake products tend to use the basic template provided by Taobao, not bothering to add more functions and decorations on top of it.

Most criminals use someone else’s certificate of identification to avoid being caught. Alibaba’s technology identifies related accounts under the same internet environment – the same Wi-Fi or computer – to discover criminals’ real identities.

Aside from RAM devices, local government in the eastern Chinese city of Pinghu in July seized RMB 30 million (USD four million) worth of fake cigarettes, with the help of Alibaba’s big data technology.

Cases for fake cigarettes.
Cases for fake cigarettes.

To trace the source and production locations of counterfeit goods, Alibaba collects counterfeit goods’ logistics information and other data throughout the capital chain via Alibaba’s AliPay, a sign that the tech giant’s anti-counterfeit technology efforts have expanded from online to offline.

Aside from the crackdown on counterfeit Samsung RAM devices and cigarettes trade domestically, technology also helped a cross-border counterfeit goods crackdown. In March 2016, Customs in the eastern Chinese city of Ningbo used Alibaba’s big data technology to spot counterfeit pesticide products being exported to Cambodia.

Despite all its current efforts, Alibaba still faces the issue of fake goods. As of December 21, the company’s online shopping platform Taobao was back on the U.S. Trade Representative’s blacklist following complaints of the sale of counterfeit and pirated goods on Taobao.

(Photo from Alibaba and

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