World of Intrigue

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If you’re a multinational manufacturer and your general manager is being held captive in rural Anhui Province by an angry mob that local authorities aren’t equipped to deal with, who do you call?

Three years ago security specialist Bryan Pruden answered that call, setting in motion his first hostage extraction. There was no time to waste, so he took an RMB1,200 (US$192) cab ride from Shanghai to Nanjing, met up with a colleague and rented a car the rest of the way there.

The point of contention in Anhui was a worker’s off-hours death. His relatives weren’t happy with the standard compensation package the employer was offering, instead they were asking for a sum in the millions of RMB. Mediation talks with the local labor board were going nowhere, and the extended family of the deceased (about 80 people, Pruden says) were camped out in the hotel where the manager was staying, escorting him to and from meetings, preventing him from going anywhere alone.

Pruden and his colleagues orchestrated a private meeting with new lawyers as a last-ditch effort to reach an agreeable solution. They told the aggrieved crowd that the manager wanted to meet privately with just the immediate family, and then they only told them the meeting location at the last-minute. Pruden sat in on the meeting.

An hour into talks the dead worker’s mother was fed up. She got on her cell phone to tell the rest of the family to hurry over to the hotel where the meeting was taking place. Her husband and son blocked the conference room door, but Pruden had operatives stationed outside to force it open. They rushed the manager out a back exit to a waiting car. There was only one highway out of town and they knew the family had cars, so they took a windy late-night detour on country roads in pouring rain back to Hefei, Anhui’s capital city.

Pruden has been in China for six years. He attended grad school in Nanjing and received a graduate degree in Chinese. After graduation, he went to work at a corporate security consultancy.

The corporate security industry exploded on the Chinese mainland about a decade ago, fueled largely by manufacturers’ need to beat back the burgeoning problem of Chinese counterfeits. There was so much money to be made in the field that ‘counterfeit anti-counterfeit’ firms popped up: unscrupulous companies would – and still do – forge documents, recycle old photos and pass them off as a legitimate investigations to overseas corporate headquarters that can’t tell the difference.

Pruden now works in-house for a luxury apparel brand, but until recently he worked with many clients at the consultancy. Aside from the rare hostage situation, Pruden’s firm primarily did background investigations, security planning and heaps of anti-counterfeit work for multinational corporations, which was about half of their business.

Pruden has seen just about every counterfeit good imaginable: shampoo, cigarettes, makeup, medicine, clothes, perfume, gimmicky weight-loss gadgets, fake brand-name stores and, of course, the resident foreigner’s loathsome foe – fake alcohol.

“It’s very unlikely you’ll find anything that’ll give you more than a bad hangover,” Pruden reassures. “Counterfeiters know if they start killing people the game is up.”

To tackle counterfeiting for clients, firms like the one Pruden worked for sometimes place informants in unregistered factories to collect evidence, or develop sources out of employees already working there. They have a relocation budget in case workers need to move away for personal safety if they’re found out.

Pruden did a lot of in-the-field investigation too, introducing himself as a prospective wholesale buyer of knock-off goods. He almost landed in hot water one time posing as a Columbian trying to buy a large sample of daily use products. It turned out the Chinese seller spoke some Spanish.

“Their Spanish ability tapered out just before mine did,” he recalls.The margins can be so high selling counterfeits abroad that even if one container gets held up at port, exporters often still make an overall profit on their shipment, he says.

Counterfeiting and organized crime go hand in hand where there’s serious money to be made. Fake tobacco and pharmaceuticals are two examples. Pruden’s firm sometimes refused jobs due to overriding safety concerns. Another frustration is that sometimes it’s next to impossible to get the local authorities on board, even with all the right evidence.

“There’s tons of local protectionism,” Pruden says. “You have whole villages, or counties even, where all the economic vibrancy is based on counterfeiting.”

But usually Pruden’s firm works closely with authorities, compiling evidence for police and planning raids together. Pruden recalled one raid conducted by 10 of his company’s operatives and some 20 police officers at a counterfeit car parts factory.

An undercover American colleague was led away in handcuffs along with the outfit’s boss, so that it wouldn’t be apparent who the mole was.

“They’re back at it again,” Pruden says, looking a bit jaded. “I don’t know if it’s the same people but it’s the same company name.”

Even after a big raid, judicial penalties are often light – sometimes causing little more than a speed bump in a counterfeiter’s production schedule. Sometimes it becomes a diplomatic issue: embassies implore national authorities to come down harder. Other times companies just make the decision to quit pouring money into a losing battle. Still, it’s not a lost cause if you go about it the right way, Pruden says. A proactive anti-counterfeit effort can entice producers to move on to less-risky brands, ones that invest less in security. Pruden has taken the next step career-wise by transferring to an in-house department, where he still works on counterfeiting but also strategizes comprehensive company security. There’s no shortage of work in the near future for those who will fill his shoes at the consultancy.

“It’s a good industry to be in, here in Asia-Pacific,” he says.

 

That’s Shanghai, 2011
Photo by Nicky Alamasy

 

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