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When I was 15, I jumped on a bus near my suburban home and rode to downtown Atlanta with a couple of buddies. While walking in a shadier part of the city, we noticed a guy signaling us from an alley. He told us he had some very expensive watches for sale, implying they were stolen. I bought one for $20 bucks, reveling in my walk on the wild side and slapping myself on the back for getting something cool for practically nothing.
That was my introduction to both counterfeit products and the “fake stolen goods” scam – one of the oldest tricks in the book.
Although that was four decades ago, counterfeit goods are still thriving today. It’s a big problem for consumers and some of the world’s most iconic brands. According to the most recent information compiled by the federal agencies tasked with dealing with intellectual property rights – the Customs and Border Protection Bureau and the Customs and Immigration Bureau – in fiscal year 2009, there were about 15,000 seizures in the U.S. with a combined value of value of about $261 million. Of that total, about $205 million were products imported from China.
While it’s hard to feel pity for luxury goods manufacturers that sell purses for $1,000 or watches for $10,000, unfortunately it’s not just the highly paid who lose on counterfeiting.
Why counterfeiting matters
If you’re the type that loves a deal or yearns for the prestige that comes with a luxury name, you’ve probably been tempted by come-ons from the Internet or a downtown sidewalk to buy everything from fake Rolex watches to fake Gucci purses. Hopefully you have enough sense to know they’re counterfeit – you can’t buy a Gucci purse for $20 – but maybe you think to yourself, “Why not?” Well, here’s why not…
1. You’re giving money to someone dishonest. Would you leave your house unlocked to keep your local burglar employed? Selling counterfeit stuff isn’t legal, nor is it ethical. It’s not fair to con people into fake stuff – even naive high-schoolers out looking for trouble. The sellers of this junk should do what you do: Work an honest job. And since nearly all knock-offs originate overseas, you might also be supporting a sweat-shop.
2. You’re taking money from someone honest. If enough people buy dishonest stuff, they’re ultimately costing honest jobs. If you would have bought a genuine Gucci purse, you’re costing a Gucci employee their job. If you would have bought a less expensive non-knockoff from another purse manufacturer, you’re costing that company’s employees jobs: maybe American jobs. Either way, buying counterfeit results in money that could have gone to honest workers and management going to support dishonest ones.
3. You’re buying lousy stuff. Those who illegally make counterfeit items certainly have no incentive to do a quality job. After all, it’s not like their customers will be able to complain. And the manufacturers of some products – like pharmaceuticals – are so twisted, they’ll put people’s lives at risk just to make buck.
In our status-crazy and budget-conscience society, it’s easy to understand why we’re tempted to buy counterfeit stuff for the name or the price. But if you’re on a tight budget, remember that sometimes quality is worth paying for – and that’s definitely true in the case of your health. As for status, if you’re so desperate to impress that you’ll knowingly buy inferior knock-offs in order to fool people, maybe it’s time to stop being as shallow as a puddle.
What’s getting counterfeited?
Simply ensuring the shoes you’re buying are “real” will halt the sale of nearly 40 percent of all fake goods; at least, if the seizures by the above federal agencies accurately represent the overall flow of counterfeit goods to America. Below are the 10 most common categories of goods seized, along with their dollar value and percent of the total.
- Footwear $ 99,779,263 38%
- Consumer Electronics $ 31,773,625 12%
- Handbags/Wallets/Backpacks $ 21,501,614 8%
- Wearing Apparel $ 21,462,276 8%
- Watches/Parts $ 15,533,922 6%
- Computers/Hardware $ 12,546,098 5%
- Media $ 11,099,758 4%
- Pharmaceuticals $ 11,057,991 4%
- Jewelry $ 10,499,243 4%
- Toys/Electronic Games $ 5,503,143 2%
- All Other Commodities $ 19,941,004 8%
Avoiding counterfeits: If it looks to good to be true…
The easiest way to avoid being taken is to avoid being greedy. Even at the tender age of 15, I should have known that nobody is going to sell a $5,000 watch – even a stolen one – for $20. And of course, today’s crook doesn’t have to hang out in an alley – they now often hang out in cyber-space.
So be aware of the products most likely to be counterfeited, and learn how to spot fakes by studying the workmanship and detail of the real McCoy. There are only two reasons high-priced products are high-priced: They’re either extremely well-made, or you’re paying for a name. You should be able to tell if a product is well made. If you can’t, you’re paying for the name and shouldn’t be buying it anyway.
And remember that just as it doesn’t take much effort to set up a display table on the sidewalk, it also doesn’t take much effort to set up a professional-looking website: almost no effort to sell on Craigslist, eBay, or other sites.
There are ways to verify an online business: Check them out on complaint sites, make sure they have a physical address in the U.S., pick up the phone and talk to the company. But the two most important things you can do both online and off are to deal with companies you know, and go with your gut. If the deal is too good to be true…