The 10 most counterfeited products — and how to spot them

Most of us want a great bargain. But are we willing to steal or hurt someone for it? What about die or get sick from it?

Choosing counterfeit products, whether you buy them knowingly or not, comes with risks.

“The dangers of buying counterfeit products aren’t always obvious,” notes U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which seizes all manner of such goods in its role as an agency of the Department of Homeland Security. “There are economic impacts, legal implications, and health and safety risks that are important for you to know before you buy.”

In 2016, counterfeiting was a $460 billion industry worldwide, AdWeek reported, citing the International Trademark Association.

You probably know that buying counterfeit goods is stealing intellectual property. But did you know it also fuels terrorism, organized crime and sweatshops?

Even if you don’t stop to buy those purported “designer goods” from street vendors offering bargain prices, you might acquire phony goods and not even know it. The Wall Street Journal reported on instances of counterfeit items (including mundane items such as knives and ice cube trays) offered by third-party sellers through Amazon. That’s a problem for legitimate sellers and should be cause for customers to be concerned as well.

The best way to fight back is to educate yourself about some of the most commonly counterfeited products. There are a good number of seized counterfeit products — about 14 percent — that don’t fall into easily definable categories, reported the CBP. But there are 10 types of products that are consistently counterfeited. Take note of them and learn how to detect them: 

The most counterfeited products
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The most counterfeited products

10. Automotive and aerospace parts

The CBP reports that 2 percent of counterfeit goods its agents seize are automotive and aerospace parts. Fake car parts including faulty air bags from China are flooding the U.S. Counterfeiters cheaply replicate auto parts and sell them as branded, or at least reliable substitute, products. The counterfeiters pocket the money, and the unsuspecting buyer takes the risk of injury or death if a key part, such as an airbag, fails.

The best way to avoid this risk is to only allow qualified auto technicians — such as those at major chains and dealers — to repair and maintain your car.

You likely won’t personally encounter counterfeit aerospace equipment unless you work in the industry, but it is big business. Counterfeit parts jeopardize personnel, weapons systems and vital supplies carried by U.S. military truck, tanks, submarines and ships. 

Photo credit: Reuters 

9. Labels and tags

You don’t need to look far to find fake designer labels. They make up 2 percent of the counterfeit goods seized by federal agents. Some are likely used for fun, gag gifts and more. Others are put on handbags, clothing and other items to con customers.

Sometimes the designer names are misspelled or the material of the label is shoddy. But not always. There are dozens of markets in Hong Kong that offer “designer” goods tagged with labels that look authentic.

While you may not be able to spot a fake label, you should know that if a $1,000 coat is offered for $50 it’s likely fake. Or stolen. 

Just say no. 

Photo credit: Getty

8. Computers and accessories

We all know sophisticated computer equipment is expensive. That’s why counterfeiters targeted the U.S. military when they had counterfeit computer good to sell. Investigators discovered the military had been targeted and had bought counterfeit/defective components for computers that controlled ballistic missile defense system, reported Computerworld.

But just because the counterfeiters prefer to target the U.S. military and other major purchasers doesn’t mean that those with personal computers aren’t at risk. Counterfeit computers and accessories account for 2 percent of items seized by the CBP. Everything from computer chips to charging cords, smart phones, tablets and PCs are counterfeited and sold.

In fact the International AntiCounterfeiting Coalition reports there is $100 billion worth of counterfeit tech hardware is on the market.

How can you spot these counterfeit goods? Again, you can do it by considering the price. If a computer retails for $1,000 but is available for $100, that should raise red flags. So should a supply of products that are generally in high demand — such as the latest iPhone soon after it is introduced. Other signs a product may be faked can sometimes be found in the warranty, the feel of the product and its color, reported the U.K. site Tech Advisor

Photo credit: Getty

7. DVDs and CDs

CDs, DVDs and other products that the CBP classifies as “Optical Media” make up about 3 percent of the counterfeit goods the agency seizes.

Some DVDs are clearly counterfeits. You can tell by the jumpy images. One such movie I watched even showed people walking in front of the screen. Clearly it was shot while the actual movie played in a theater.

But other counterfeit media isn’t as obvious.

In fact, Amazon was accused of selling counterfeit music CDs. Concerns about third-party sellers of counterfeit DVDs prompted Amazon to change its policy for such sellers.

You can spot fake DVDs and CDs in several ways including the appearance of the bottom of the disc. If it’s green, purple or otherwise colored, then it’s one that’s been recorded (possibly illicitly) and not produced in an authorized factory. Handwritten labels and packaging without art are also signs that the recording is likely counterfeit. 

Photo credit: Getty

6. Pharmaceuticals

The United States prides itself on safe pharmaceuticals, but that may not be the case going forward as counterfeit, expired, stolen and adulterated medications make their way into the supply chain for hospitals, pharmacies and other medical institutions, reported AARP. The CBP reports 8 percent of its seizures are counterfeit medications.

And some people put themselves in harm’s way, buying pharmaceuticals online and through the mail at what they believe are bargain prices.

The best way to protect yourself is to avoid websites that don’t require prescriptions for medications that normally do require them, or sites that offer to supply prescriptions, says the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. When in doubt about any medication provider, make sure the pharmacy is state-licensed. You can do so by calling your state’s board of pharmacy (full listing here.) 

Photo credit: Getty

5. Handbags and wallets

There are shops in many major cities where you can buy any type of designer purse — cheap! The catch, of course, is that the bags are counterfeit.

At one store in New York’s Chinatown area, shoppers choose the style of handbag they want from the display, and then ask the clerk if that style is available from a certain designer — Chloe, Alexander McQueen, Kate Spade, etc. The clerk will say yes, duck into a back room and return carrying a handbag with the designer label.

Of course those labels aren’t authentic. In fact, they are often still warm when they are handed to the customer from the glue gun used to attach them. Clearly counterfeit.

But not all counterfeiters are that obvious. Many resale shops — online and brick-and-mortar — traffic in phony designer handbags. Some do so out of ignorance. But many resale shop owners can spot phony bag by the stitching, logo and bag materials.

The CBP reports 10 percent of its counterfeit seizures are these items. Fight back. Say no.

And know this: If you do find a true designer bag for sale at a bargain price, it may well have been stolen. 

Photo credit: Getty

4. Watches and jewelry

Quartz magazine reported that counterfeit watches and jewelry are the new counterfeit handbags. CBP numbers bear that out. The agency reports that 11 percent of the counterfeit good it seizes are in this category.

Clearly the people selling designer brands on street corners are trafficking in knock-offs. But don’t assume the local jewelry store only has authentic brands. Officials try to screen the 24 million commercial cargo shipments and 250 million mail parcels that arrive in the U.S. each year, but plenty of counterfeits still slip through, reported Quartz.

There are ways to sort the real from the fake, noted ABC News. Some of the easiest are for consumers to pay attention to stone size. Giant gems at bargain prices are generally fake. And look carefully at the setting. Real gems aren’t placed in cheap setting. As far as watches, a real top-of-the-line watch has a smooth sweep to the second-hand, it doesn’t jerk.

Buy with caution and get warranties. 

Photo credit: Getty

3. Footwear

Counterfeit Birkenstocks were so rife on Amazon that the Novato, California-based sandal maker pulled its iconic brand from the mega retailer last year, reported Quartz. That’s only one of countless name-brand footwear companies that have seen their products replicated and sold. The CBP reported 12 percent of the counterfeit goods the agency seizes are footwear.

Think you would have spotted the fake? Maybe, but maybe not. After all, the counterfeit Birkenstocks were only sold for $20 less than the real items.

One of the best ways to avoid fakes is to check the seller. If the seller is a third-party affiliate, beware. Also read the reviews from other customers posted by online retailers. You’ll likely get a good sense if the products are authentic. 

Photo credit: Getty

2. Consumer electronics

Everything from Hoverboards to surge protectors are fair game to counterfeiters. The CBP reported 12 percent of counterfeit items its agents seize fall into this category. Various news reports state some people even seek out knock-offs thinking it is basically the same item at a lower price. That’s generally not true. The fakes tend to malfunction — or don’t function at all. At the worst, users can be injured if the electronics malfunction.

Concern about the glut of these electronics caused the Obama administration to launch “Operation Surge Protector,” a multi-agency initiative to find such goods and prosecute counterfeiters, reported The Washington Examiner

Photo credit: Getty

1. Apparel and accessories

Jackets, hoodies, jeans and dresses are among the items that counterfeiters sell as designer — when they’re not. The CBP reported 20 percent of the items the agency seizes are apparel and accessories.

Although there are guides for spotting fakes on many sites (like this one on eBay), it’s almost impossible to list all of the telltale signs for each designer and item.

In general, though, sloppy workmanship is often a clue. Cheap fabric, poorly sewn hems and seams, and cheap buttons and fasteners are some of the warning signs, according to eBay. And don’t forget the hastily sewn- or glued-on labels we mentioned earlier. Another tip-off.

Like most counterfeit items, though, the price is generally the dead giveaway. A $200 designer jacket will not be sold for $20 unless there is something shady happening. Many designers rarely allow their items to be sold at discounts because they believe it cheapens the brand. There are a number of resellers of luxury goods. The ones that sell true designer good will verify the authenticity and offer guarantees.

Sadly, it’s not always easy to spot counterfeit items, but know that they are available throughout the U.S. marketplace. Protect yourself by taking the time to analyze your purchases. 

Photo credit: Getty


Have you encountered counterfeits among your purchases or intentionally sought out cheap knock-offs? Share your experience in comments below or on our Facebook page.  

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