Faking It: How to Spot Online Counterfeiters

counterfeit Levi jeans have a zipper - online counterfeitersIf imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then online sellers of product knockoffs are becoming the ultimate fawners.

Counterfeit merchandise is nothing new -- we've all seen those fake Louis Vuitton bags and bootleg UGG boots sold in tourist areas like New York City's Chinatown and Santee Alley in Los Angeles, as well as at flea markets, street fairs and strip malls throughout the country.But knockoffs have found an open frontier on the Internet, where "rogue sites" keep popping up like in a game of "whack-a-mole," says Kurt Courtney, government relations manager for The American Apparel & Footwear Association.

Counterfeit and pirated goods online represented a $200 billion business worldwide in 2010, and that number is growing, says Te Smith, vice president of communications for MarkMonitor, which provides solutions and services designed to safeguards brands worldwide.

"We believe that online [fakes] are growing faster than in the physical world because business can be done anonymously. You can sell anything to anyone anywhere online."

That's because the Internet is largely unregulated, says Mark Jonas Block, a specialist in intellectual property law for Kucher & Bruh LLC. "It's the Wild West, and it's very hard to stop someone from claiming to be something they're not."

And consumers are taking the bait.

MarkMonitor examined five luxury brands and turned up more than 1,100 suspicious e-commerce sites. "Those sites drove almost 120 million annual visits, representing almost half the traffic generated by the legitimate dot com sites of the brands in the study -- and that's just for five brands," Smith says.

When ordering from these sites, shoppers can end up with merchandise that is not only inauthentic but also sometimes shoddily made, and even potentially dangerous, says Rebecca Mond, another government relations manager for the American Apparel & Footwear Association.

For example, apparel is subject to state and federal safety standards, such as flammability standards. "But for the most part, counterfeit goods might not be compliant," she says.

And unlike the real world where you can inspect the merchandise to verify its authenticity, it's hard to tell a fake online. Some of these sites will go as far as to pluck product shots from the websites of legitimate brands, Block says.

So before you surf the Web for your new spring wardrobe in search of brand names and designer fare at a bargain, here's some ways to spot a rogue site and counterfeit goods online.

Spotting Fakes Online

Although several manufacturers have become vigilant about fighting fraud, some resist identifying the markers of a fake version of their product for fear of tipping off the counterfeiters.

Check the manufacturers' websites to see if they offer a list of authorized sellers and details on how counterfeiters have tried to take their particular brand hostage.

Premium denim company True Religion goes as far as to list the names of online merchants who sell counterfeit versions of their jeans on its website.

Some product categories are particularly ripe for fakery. "Shoes and purses are every girl's friend, and the counterfeiter knows this," Smith says.

UGG boots, for one, are among some of the most knocked-off product around. The company features photo examples of counterfeit UGG boots on its website in an extensive "counterfeit education" section. Photos of the fakes can be seen here.

"We're upfront with assisting customers so that they're not duped," says Leah Evert-Burks, director of brand protection for Deckers Outdoor Corporation, UGG's parent company.

For example, UGG boots never have hang tags, are sold in biodegradable plastic bags within a box, and they'll never say "snow boots" on them as "UGG boots are not intended for the snow," says Evert-Burks.

Consumers can type in the name of a suspect online seller on UGG's website and it will let them know if it's a counterfeit site.

What's more, shoppers who purchased counterfeit UGG boots with a MasterCard will be reimbursed.

If something seems fishy, do a side-by-side comparison of a product from a site you might find suspect with one from the manufacturer's website.

Indeed, there are some telltale signs of counterfeit goods -- a brand logo that looks askew, hardware details, such as zippers, that seem off, and packaging that doesn't appear to reflect the brand.

Levi's 501 button fly jeans are one of the company's most commonly knocked-off products, says Kelley Benander, a Levi's spokesperson. "If [consumers] see a zipper on a Levi's 501 jean, then it's likely a counterfeit," she says. Levi's site also includes information on counterfeit goods.

Identifying Counterfeit Websites

  • The biggest sign of a fraudulent site is one that's offering dramatic discounts, so be skeptical about price, Block says. "If you see a brand that's sold for $150 (being) sold for $20, chances are it's fake." (Be aware, though, that rogue sites have gotten savvier, and some are now selling at more modest discounts to beef up their credibility, Smith says.)
  • Check out the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) or "about us" part of a suspect website as some will use the term "replica," which simply means counterfeit, to describe their products, Smith said.
  • Beware of "cyber squatting," which describes using a brand name in a URL without permission from the brand. These sites "want to make a buck off the back of a brand," Smith says.

If a site's URL contains a construction like this -- the manufacturer's brand name, the word "discount" and then something like "handbag store" or "outlet store" -- that's a clue the website is selling fakes and might be cyber-squatting. This is particularly common among online sellers of fake luxury handbags.

And a site that uses a single brand name in its own name but purports to carry a number of different brands "is another giveaway," Smith says.

  • Be alert to "typo-squatting," sites with names that are a misspelled version of a brand. In general, if a website has spelling errors, "don't buy from it," Block says.
And when there is a period missing between the "www" and a well-known brand name, that's a "technique [rogue sites] will also use sometimes," Smith says.
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