August 25, 2016

Back-to-School Shoppers Beware: Counterfeit Goods on the Rise

The back-to-school shopping season represents one of the busiest times of the year for retailers. As students of all ages prepare to return to the classroom, millions will hit their local malls and scour the web for the best deals on everything from electronics to clothing to basic school supplies.

But one thing you won’t find on shopping lists? Counterfeit goods.

Yet, more and more consumers unknowingly purchase fake goods, and at an alarming rate.  Global estimates of the value of physical counterfeit goods have more than doubled since 2005 to a whopping $461 billion. That’s also more than double the 2014 profits of the world’s top 10 companies combined.

Not only does the counterfeit trade harm U.S. businesses and jobs, counterfeit goods represent real risks to consumers. The lack of proper oversight and safety measures results in low-quality and even downright dangerous products.

Many who turn to the web can unwittingly fall prey to fakes. Phony websites plastered with popular brand logos lure unsuspecting shoppers into risky territory. But even those who knowingly purchase inauthentic goods are often unaware of their true dangers and defects.

Take, for example, electronic purchases.

One frustrated customer recently reported that a cell phone battery he had purchased online had overheated to the point that it burned the skin on his hand, scarring it. He took it to a reputable phone retailer only to be told that the battery was a counterfeit.

Other customers have shared horror stories of counterfeit cell phone and laptop chargers melting within minutes and burning through the carpet beneath them. Some chargers even caught fire.

Outside of the physical dangers, parents forking over top dollar for the newest trends will be sorely disappointed when they discover they didn’t quite get what they paid for.

Shoes and clothing are two of the most common items that the counterfeit industry targets, peddling poorly-manufactured merchandise made with subpar materials.

Some counterfeit clothes may even show rips and tears; counterfeit shoes may reek of a pungent glue smell. In short, counterfeit shoes and clothing offer no quality assurance.

Even textbooks aren’t safe. Cengage Learning, John Wiley and Sons, Pearson Education, and McGraw Hill Education: all of these textbook publishers have recently fought attacks by counterfeit producers.

Thousands of fake textbooks were discovered when paper and binding began to tear, and images and words began melting off of pages. Some were printed solely in black and white, others were missing entire pages.

Aside from these issues are the dangers of submitting your personal payment information to unauthorized sites.  Consumers should never provide credit card information to a site unless it’s pointing to an “https://” address. The “s” stands for secure and signals the authentication of that website’s information exchange process. Websites without the “s” are vulnerable to middle-man eavesdropping, tampering, and stealing during the information exchange process.

While the ultimate goal is to put an end to the counterfeit trade, consumer protection must begin with consumer education.Whatever you’re shopping for, it’s important to shop smart and shop safe.

Visit certified retailers, whether brick-and-mortar or online, and look for relevant certification labels. Scour products for obvious design flaws, misspellings, and other manufacturing defects: blatant errors point to counterfeit goods.

Most importantly, shoppers should trust their instincts. If you’re uncomfortable with a purchase – maybe the price seemed suspiciously low; maybe you weren’t offered a sales receipt or warranty information; maybe the seller could not answer or refused to answer simple questions about the product – trust your gut and shop elsewhere.

Because when it comes to buying counterfeit goods, you’ll likely get more than you bargained for.

Frank Cullen is executive director of U.S. intellectual property policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Global Intellectual Property Center. 

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