Too Good To Be True

December 8, 2021 - Shaun Tai and Jason Son

Those new pairs of limited-edition sneakers on “sale” for a steep discount on a website you’ve never heard of? How about that ‘new’ workout formula listed online on a bulk discount? Or maybe those stocking stuffer electronics you’ve purchased that arrived at your door looking a little different than what you saw on the website? You might want to double-check your Christmas wish list again.

As the holiday season approaches, consumer demands for goods and services in 2021 are projected to set records as COVID continues to shape the way we shop. The holiday season, paired with ongoing supply chain struggles globally and in the United States, is expected to contribute to the ongoing shift from in-person shopping to online shopping. There are three important factors to take note of. First, Adobe Analytics, a research unit of Adobe Inc., expects U.S. holiday sales online to hit $207 billion from Nov. 1 to Dec. 31, setting a record, and representing a 10% increase from 20201. Secondly, disruptions in the supply chain, overseas manufacturing challenges, and cargo delays, have caused out-of-stock goods to rise 172% entering the holiday season2. As a result of this, US consumers can expect to pay around 9% more on average for items over the holiday shopping season3. Essentially, as a consumer, you should expect to see fewer items on sale, sale prices to be reduced, and what items are on sale are more than likely to be sold out.

Inevitably, many shoppers are driven to be as price-conscious as possible during this holiday sale season, which leaves an open door for the spread of counterfeit and illicit goods that permeate the online shopping space. While handbags, luxury goods, and designer apparel are often considered the most visible targets of counterfeiting, no sector is safe from counterfeiting. Electronics in particular are one of the fastest-growing counterfeited sectors, with CSC Global estimating counterfeited electronics to be a $169 billion industry worldwide4. From a consumer standpoint, counterfeited electronics also carry a significantly greater risk of harm such as instances of device malfunctions and explosions due to poor materials and quality control. Counterfeiting is often perceived to be a victimless crime, but the harms to both corporations and consumers can be very real. Furthermore, the low-risk high-reward dynamic in counterfeiting opens a significant risk for governments, customs agencies, and industry watchdogs.

So, what can you as a consumer do to protect yourself from counterfeit goods in the marketplace? Here are some tips to ensure your purchase is legitimate.

1. If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. During the holiday season, you are likely to see retailers grant significant discounts on items. Counterfeiters are likely to take advantage of this period to push fake and illicit items onto the marketplace at an even greater discounted rate. If that new pair of sneakers you’ve been looking for are only on sale at a 25% discount on the manufacturer’s website and a third-party retailer is offering up to 80% in discounts, you’ll want to verify the authenticity of the product before making that purchase.

2. Where you make your online purchase decision is crucial. Counterfeiters will often set up their own websites listing discounted items as “authentic” instead of on verified e-commerce channels. Sticking to legitimate e-commerce sites and manufacturer sites ensures that you will receive the product you want as described. Reputable e-commerce sites usually have strict anti-counterfeiting screening measures and policies in place so that customers are protected from fake goods. Of course, counterfeiters can and do evade such measures, but having strong consumer protection protocols when buying via reputable e-commerce platforms allows you to return and report fake goods. If you have purchased a counterfeit product, report the purchase to the brand directly, to the e-commerce site that you bought from, and to the IPR Internet Crime Complaint Center IC3.

3. Take care when buying gifts from second-hand sources. Although flea markets and reselling outlets can offer good deals on name-brand products, they will usually have more lax standards for verifying their authenticity. This applies especially to online markets like Facebook Marketplace, where determining whether a product is real or counterfeit is often up to the consumers. Keep an eye out for the quality and branding of products you buy second-hand, and make sure to ask the reseller for proof of authenticity when a deal seems fishy.

4. What you buy matters. Being aware of what types of goods are more likely to be counterfeited should always be a consideration. Handbags, watches, shoes, and electronics are some of the most counterfeited items, so take extra precautions when making those purchases online.

5. When possible, shop in person. While many brick-and-mortar stores are adjusting their operating hours in light of the pandemic and other factors, buying items in person adds that extra layer of consumer protection. Being able to verify in person prior to your purchase allows you to avoid purchasing fake items.

6. Look out for product authentication labels and QR codes. Many manufacturers across different sectors have begun deploying ways to verify the authenticity of their products. Such product “fingerprinting” technologies, such as QR codes and smart labels allows consumers to effortlessly register and verify the authenticity of their purchase.

7. Interested in Michigan State University apparel for game day, or a gift for the family? Online platforms are rife with fake sports apparel. Verify that your MSU gear is purchased from a licensed vendor through resources such as the MSU Center for Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection’s Licensed Merchandise Retailers site. You can represent the Green & White knowing that your purchase is legitimate.

Counterfeiting is an ongoing and constantly changing challenge that both consumers and brands must confront. As technologies, products, and laws continue to change, it is crucial that consumers educate themselves about the potential dangers of purchasing counterfeit goods to safeguard themselves from unnecessary harms and make an informed decision while enjoying shopping during this holiday season.

If you’re interested in the field of anti-counterfeiting and product protection, be sure to check out MSU’s A-CAPP Center for publications, internship opportunities, anti-counterfeiting insights, brand protection podcasts, and much more.

Shaun & Jason are seniors majoring in Criminal Justice at MSU. They are both interns with the Michigan State University Center for Anti-Counterfeiting & Product Protection.

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