By Hannah Rhodes, Consumer Watchdog Associate
March 11, 2022
When we think of counterfeits, we often think of luxury products like bags or shoes. But counterfeits have crept into every type of product, with government officials finding counterfeit pharmaceuticals, hygiene products and children’s products.
In November 2021, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials said that between Oct. 1, 2020, and July 30, 2021, they made 22,849 seizures – spanning a variety of counterfeit products – worth $2.5 billion. While $2.5 billion seems like a large number in seizures, it’s just a drop in the bucket, with counterfeits costing the global economy an estimated $500 billion each year.
When analyzing Fiscal Year 2020, CBP listed these products as the top health and safety products seized. When counterfeited, these products could cause serious injury:
Consumer electronics (27 percent): Counterfeit electronics can overheat and cause fires. Consumers are at risk for property damage, serious injury and death.
Sunglasses/ eyewear (24 percent): Counterfeit sunglasses and eyewear can put consumer’s eyesight at risk for serious damage from UV rays.
Pharmaceuticals (14 percent): Counterfeit medicine can give consumers incorrect dosages, lack the ingredient that makes the medicine effective and have added ingredients that are dangerous to the consumer’s health.
Personal care (7 percent): Counterfeit hygiene products can contain toxic chemicals such as mercury, lead and even dangerous levels of bacteria.
Automotive/ transportation (6 percent): Counterfeit automotive and transportation parts can overheat, catch fire and cause crashes if the parts fail during use.
Batteries (3 percent): Counterfeit batteries are not designed to work with a specific product. The batteries can overheat, cause fires and injure consumers.
In January, CBP officials in Indianapolis announced that they seized four large shipments of fake jewelry in Cincinnati and Indianapolis that would have been worth $8.7 million if genuine. The seizures occurred on Dec. 24 and Jan. 5, with protected trademarks including Bvlgari, Cartier, Coach, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Michael Kors, Rolex, Tiffany, Tori Burch and Versace. The jewelry came from China. In Chicago, CBP officials reported that they confiscated shipments almost every day in January. The shipments, from a variety of countries, included counterfeit shoes, wallets, designer clothing and jewelry valued at $2.88 million.
It’s alarming to realize that products that are supposed to undergo strict safety testing or products that will be used around the body are counterfeit. While not every counterfeit product is dangerous, there is an increased chance of toxic chemicals, fire and other hazards when items are not tested for safety.
Being alert when shopping online is the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones from unsafe products. The growth of e-commerce has contributed to an increased number of ways for bad actors to sell fake products, allowing them to be delivered straight to your door.
Here are some tips about what to watch out for when shopping online:
If you’ve looked high and low for an item that’s sold out, you can’t necessarily trust what you find online. A great deal isn’t always the safest deal.
Clues within the website listing that can tell you a lot. When looking at a product’s description, watch out for misspellings or mislabelings. Website listings with low-quality pictures of products can also indicate a counterfeit.
Age recommendations. When shopping for children, age recommendations for toys and other children’s products can be listed differently throughout a website listing. The age in the title may not be the same as the manufacturer’s recommended age. If there isn’t a clear age range, it’s best to avoid buying the item.
Seller information. When shopping on websites that host third-party sellers, you can access the seller’s information:
On Amazon, you can select the seller’s name under “Buy Now.”
On eBay, you can click the seller’s name under “Seller Information.”
On Walmart, a product sold by a third-party has the seller name listed next to “Sold and shipped by.”
Clicking on the seller’s information can tell you what other items they sell, where the business is located and feedback on its products. If they sell a hodgepodge of other products in addition to what you’re considering, it may not be a reputable seller.
What the seller has to say. If you have questions about the authenticity of the product, you can reach out to the seller with questions. If they don’t respond, it’s a good indicator of trouble and that you just may not want to do business with them.
Suspiciously low prices. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce (USCC) and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) caution consumers to watch out for products that are unusually cheap compared with other items in the same category. When using a website that has third-party sellers, comparing listings for similar toys can be a good way to identify what the average price should be. Low prices don’t necessarily equal a good deal.
Where else the seller lists products. Do an internet search on the seller. If the seller has a website, check it out. You can also see if a seller has listings on other websites that have third-party sellers and compare the listings to see any discernible differences.
Social media posts that are suspicious. Consumers should be wary of posts or targeted ad campaigns on social media. A report by the United States Trade Representative (USTR) says that posts and ad campaigns can be a “fast, easy, inexpensive and common tactic” that are used to fool customers into buying counterfeit and pirated products.
Safety is key. If a product will be used in or around the body — medicines, cosmetics, baby products — it’s best to shop at a brick-and-mortar store or the company’s website. Not every counterfeit is necessarily dangerous, but it’s important to be especially cautious about products that could have heartbreaking consequences.
Reviews that aren’t trustworthy. U.S. PIRG Education Fund lists tips on the best ways to differentiate between fake and real reviews.
If you buy the product, take a look at the packaging. The USCC and CPSC recommend scrutinizing the labels, packaging and contents. If the packaging has anything suspicious, such as a broken safety seal, it could be a counterfeit product. While a counterfeit may be difficult to spot online, there could be differences in quality that are more visible when you get the product in the mail.
Report any bad experiences. If you believe you’ve purchased a counterfeit or knockoff product, you can report it to www.saferproducts.gov or call the CPSC at 800-638-2772.
Help out loved ones. If family and friends who are not as tech-savvy plan to shop online, teach them how to identify listings that could be counterfeit. Go through listings together and show them what to look for to identify a counterfeit.