What are counterfeits and how to avoid them

Based on the original article published by the European Consumer Centres Network here.


They can be cheap and stylish, and they may look authentic. Yet, they might be fake.


What are counterfeit products?

What are counterfeits anyway? Counterfeits are physical fake goods which infringe trademarks, design rights or patents owned by manufacturers as rightsholders. The most common products counterfeited are designer bags, so think of a Birkin bag sold for EUR 200 when the original can cost upwards of EUR 5,000. Similar to counterfeits are physical pirated products, which breach the copyright of their original makers, and that are in fact unauthorised designs and copies sold as authentic. Latterly, “piracy” mostly involves reproducing audio/video/digital content such as movies, music, books or other copyrighted works without permission from the copyright owner.

The types of products most likely to be counterfeited are: luxury goods (clothing, shoes, accessories), electronic devices, mobile phones, cosmetics and perfumes, pharmaceuticals, cigarettes and toys. Some of the most popular counterfeit goods are mobile phones and accessories, which are sold particularly during sales events such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday when the dramatically reduced prices seem justified. It is not a coincidence that counterfeits are expensive luxury goods regarded as social status symbols; counterfeits are very much the result of the culture of the desirability of high-cost, designer, luxury and exclusive products.


Why you shouldn’t buy counterfeited or pirated products

There are several problems associated with buying counterfeit products. Worst-case scenario, you will end up with an unsafe product that ends up causing harm to you or someone else. It is because, often, counterfeit products do not comply with the safety requirements that protect us in the EU — for example, they contain certain substances hazardous to human health or the environment. At the very least, keep in mind that a counterfeit product is a crime, and, in some places, so is buying it. Moreover, by purchasing a counterfeit product, you may indirectly fund organised crime, which often operates in this area.

A consumer can’t always tell for sure what ingredients or materials have been used to create a counterfeit product. Many counterfeit products do not comply with applicable safety requirements and can be immediately dangerous to human health and safety. Examples include pharmaceuticals, children’s toys, cosmetics and fragrances.


How to avoid buying counterfeits on- and off-line

Firstly, it is important to know you can make sure you are buying authentic, original products. New high-end, trademarked and patented products, as well as second-hand, should come with a certificate of authenticity and also a warranty certificate.

And here is what to do to make sure you are not buying the wrong products online and off.


When shopping online

For e-commerce purchases, it is impossible to inspect a product. Some illicit sellers operating in the counterfeit trade often operate scams whereby you receive imperfect copies of products and make it impossible for you to return them or get your money back.

Here are some things you can do to try and verify an item’s authenticity and some basic internet safety tips that will help you avoid counterfeited products marketed as originals.

Check the web seller’s identity. Always make sure the contact information listed on the website is correct and real. A real company should and would publish their verifiable company registration number as well as VAT number.

Read other customers’ reviews. Look up online what other consumers have written about the company.

Assess if the website looks professional. Most websites that sell counterfeit products contain misspellings, grammatical errors, minimal copied or generic content, and low-quality images.

Look for information on consumer rights. Online retailers are required to provide customers with clear, accurate information about their consumer rights, shipping information, details on returns and cancellation process, refund and complaints procedures.

Check prices. Sellers of counterfeit products often charge significantly lower prices than brands and their authorised online retailers.

Check missing sales taxes. Sellers trading counterfeit goods do not report sales to financial and tax authorities — which is why you will notice only one price value, and no details of sales tax, VAT, import tax, etc.

Check out authorised retailersManufacturers and brands will provide a list of approved resellers, as well as blacklisted web shops. If you order products from approved retailers, you can rest assured they are authentic.

Use a secure payment method. When making a payment, always make sure the website has a security certificate. You should pay using a credit card. Avoid direct money transfers as this will make it impossible to reverse the transaction.

If the product is vintage, second hand or refurbished, examine it closely upon delivery. Resold designer products are often found online. Just like new products, they should come with a certificate of authenticity (high-end designs) and also a warranty certificate.


When shopping on site

If you buy branded products either abroad or in your country of residence, it is important to verify their authenticity. Keep in mind as a general rule that counterfeit products are illegal.

Many European cities have flea markets and bazaars where you can find anything from fresh produce, vintage wear, new and refurbished electronics and curios. Sometimes there will be stalls selling counterfeits, pirated products or unauthorised copies of brand originals and designer products. Some territories are less policed for counterfeits than others (read our case study here). In other cases, you will find back-alley shops and stores selling counterfeits and pirated products. In other non-EU jurisdictions, the counterfeit goods trade is quite established, for instance in Turkey, where counterfeits are sold openly as cheaper designer replicas.

Although a counterfeit product is usually cheap, it may cost you a lot more in the long run. The laws governing counterfeit products vary within the EU, but they are often harsh. In some European countries, you can be fined up to 10,000 euros — not only for purchasing a counterfeit product but also for bringing it back into your country of residence.

Counterfeit products may be difficult to recognise, but they are often of poor quality and lack safety guarantees. They also lack labels and tags or distinctive marks that are embedded in original products.


How to spot counterfeits

Examine the materials and details. The quality of a counterfeit product is often inferior to that of the original. Carefully examine seams and labels; sometimes the stitching or buttons and zippers can be a giveaway. Check if the brand name is spelt correctly and make sure no details are missing from the logo. Also, read the labels and washing instructions — if they contain misspellings, the product is likely counterfeit.

Check the lining and pockets. The inside should be made with the same care as the outside. Counterfeiters usually work from photographs, and they often lack a good picture of the inside of an item.

Check the packaging. Check if the packaging and the item contain the same trademark or brand name. Keep in mind expensive fashion products are rarely sold in plastic packaging, for example.

Check the manufacturer. Counterfeit beauty products and perfumes can cause severe allergic reactions for instance. Ask the seller or distributor of the brand to check if the product was manufactured in the original factory. They can use the product’s manufacturing registration number (which is on the packaging) to do so.

Pay attention to the price. Find out what the product costs in an authentic brand shop. If the price seems too good to be true, it probably is, and so is the product.

Ask for a receipt. Keep in mind goods sold by private individuals can also be counterfeit. Ask where they purchased the product and ask for receipts and warranties (if any).

Do not buy designer products outside a brand shop. Lots of small sellers trade from a stall in a street bazaar or even on beaches. You will not find a designer bargain there and your purchase may come at a big price indeed, such as a fine or more.


Where to report counterfeits in Europe

Consumers can play an important role in keeping the market free of fakes. The most important thing when you come upon a source of counterfeits is to report them to the right place and alert other customers, particularly online. Contact the official brand and inform them of the counterfeit products.

In Ireland, for example, if you suspect fraud, report it to the cyber-fraud or economic crime department of the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau). It is usually the same department for all national police forces in Member States.


Read more about how to deal with counterfeit products here.

Read the latest reports on the counterfeit trade in Europe here