Avoiding Counterfeit Items This Holiday Season

December 2, 2021 - Lisa Moore

With the Holiday Season fast approaching, we are speaking with experts within the School of Criminal Justice to learn how we can keep our information safe and avoid scams. Today we hear from Criminal Justice Graduate Student Lisa Moore on how to avoid counterfeit products.

Photo of Criminal Justice Graduate Student Lisa MooreIs purchasing a counterfeit item illegal?

This is a simple question but it is surprisingly difficult to give a simple answer. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, it is illegal to purchase counterfeit goods in the United States. However, there is a distinction between buying a single counterfeit product for individual use (without re-sale) rather than buying multiple counterfeit products. Buying a single counterfeit product for individual use is not illegal in the US. Nevertheless, it is always illegal to manufacture, sell, distribute, and/or transport counterfeit goods in the US and could result in up to a $2 million fine and 10 years in prison (or even higher fines and prison time if the counterfeit product causes death).

In short, buying a single counterfeit item is not illegal in the United States.

While buying counterfeit goods is not illegal in the United States, there are several safety and ethical concerns related to buying counterfeit products. Buying from reputable brands and companies ensures that the products the consumer is purchasing meet regulations and industry standards for safety and reliability. Counterfeiters and counterfeit products do not have to meet these requirements, so they may be selling or producing dangerous products for the consumers. It is also unethical because buying counterfeits harms the brands that do follow the safety and legal requirements, in addition to funding unsafe work environments and even criminal organizations. Also, buying counterfeit products because they are cheaper than the legitimate goods may backfire. The quality of counterfeits may be significantly lower and the product may break easily or not function at all, which costs money to replace and is environmentally unsustainable.

What is the incentive for someone to purchase a counterfeit item?

Non-Deceptive Counterfeits:

People purchase counterfeit goods for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, people purchase counterfeit items intentionally, which is called a non-deceptive counterfeit because the buyer is aware the goods that they are buying are not genuine brand-name products. People may intentionally buy counterfeit products when:

  • they cannot afford to buy the genuine good but still want to appear as though they have those products;
  • they may be fans of a certain product but might be unable to get the product due to scarcity or rarity;
  • or they may be able to afford (or even already own) the genuine product but may buy a counterfeit or “knockoff” to use while keeping the expensive product safe.

Deceptive Counterfeits:

Other times, people buy counterfeit products unintentionally because they thought the goods that they were buying were genuine. This is a deceptive counterfeit, because the counterfeit sellers deceive the buyers into believing they are buying a real or trusted product. This is particularly dangerous for pharmaceuticals or consumer goods related to safety like auto parts. People may be tricked into buying these counterfeit products while searching for the legitimate goods because the counterfeit product is sold for less money.

What are the signs that a product may be counterfeit?

The product is listed as a “knockoff”, “dupe”, “imitation”, or “replica”

Counterfeiters rarely advertise their products as counterfeits, even when they are selling non-deceptively to buyers looking for counterfeits. Instead, they typically advertise their products as “knockoffs”, “dupes”, “imitations”, or “replicas”. Also, people may confuse products listed as “imitations” or “replicas” as being licensed by the brand to sell them, but the brand did not actually license them to do so.

Pictures that do not match descriptions or reviews

Products may be counterfeit when the pictures initially shown by the seller look different from the customer photos or other photos of the product. Sellers making counterfeit luxury products, for example, will often remove the counterfeit logos from their images in order to avoid detection from the brand or authorities, but the customer photos or descriptions may show the product featuring the genuine brand’s logo on the fake products.

Cheaper than normal pricing

Some other signs of a counterfeit product may be when it is suspiciously cheaper than the product typically is, when the names or descriptions of the product contain spelling and grammatical errors, or when the photos or reviews do not match the product advertised. It is great to find good deals on products, but products that are much cheaper than the going rate may not be worth the bargain if they are dangerous or do not work as advertised.

Unusual shipping and packaging information

Counterfeit products, particularly those involved in drop shipping schemes, typically take much longer to ship than reputable retailers. They may also advertise shipping in “discreet packaging” or large products in multiple parts. Checking the shipping times and policies can help you look at this information and determine if it seems unusual or illegitimate.

Are counterfeit items on sale on large online retailers like Amazon?

Unfortunately, there are counterfeit items listed for sale on online marketplaces like Amazon, DHgate, Wish, AliExpress, etc., with some marketplaces listing more counterfeits than others. If you are buying from online marketplaces rather than individual brand websites, be sure to check out the sellers, pictures, reviews, and other available information, especially if you have not bought from that particular vendor before.

What is the most important thing a consumer can do if they want to avoid buying counterfeit items?

The most important thing we as consumers can do to avoid buying a counterfeit item is to be wary and do some research on the products you are buying online. Looking into the product, pricing, shipping, and the company could help you determine if the goods you are considering buying are counterfeit rather than genuine. It could also help you determine if your information is safe to share on that website, which you can learn more about in Dr. Holt’s Q&A on keeping your information safe this holiday season.


Lisa is a Doctoral Student in the School of Criminal Justice and Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection (A-CAPP) Center. Her research interests are in policing, police training, law enforcement organizations, and anti-counterfeiting and illicit trade. She received bachelor’s degrees in Criminal Justice and Psychology from Indiana University in 2019. While at IU, she was a cadet and part-time officer for the Indiana University Police Department.