By David Hirschmann
The waning days of summer mean it’s the second-most wonderful time of the year for retail sales: the back to school shopping season. Millions of families are scouring the internet and hitting the malls to find everything from electronics to edgy new clothing while seeking ways to stretch their dollars.
However, the best deals may be threats in disguise in the form of counterfeit goods. Counterfeit items come in all shapes and sizes and can be difficult to spot. And they are increasingly found in online marketplaces, where phony websites and fake products ranging from medicines to electronics are growing at an alarming rate. This threat is especially apparent in the United States, where more people fall victim to counterfeiting than in any other country in the world, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
While seemingly harmless, counterfeit goods pose real threats to students and families. The first threat is quality. Knockoff items are usually similar in appearance but are made with low-grade materials, offering no quality assurance. Two of the products most targeted by the counterfeit industry – clothing and shoes – are good examples. Consumers think they spent their hard-earned money on quality clothes for their children, yet they end up ripped and unraveled.
In a more serious threat, counterfeit goods can put students in physical danger by exposing them to toxins and fire hazards. Many of the most common counterfeits contain harmful chemicals and do not meet U.S. safety standards. Take electronics for example. Schools increasingly rely on technology, but it can be expensive. So, it comes as no surprise that inexpensive electronics are in demand and copycat products have infiltrated the market.
Unfortunately, poor manufacturing quality can lead to melting cords or overheating batteries – and safety becomes the real price. Few consumers realize the full scope of products that fakers make: counterfeit vitamins, cleaning supplies, cosmetics, and electronics can all endanger safety and health.
The threat of the counterfeit industry is recognized by governments worldwide. Various initiatives led by countries and government organizations to combat counterfeiting are ongoing. But as long as consumers continue to purchase counterfeit products – knowingly or unknowingly – the threat will remain. To protect themselves against these risks, consumers should take steps such as:
- Shop at reputable and reliable retailers. Many companies will only sell their products through authorized retailers. Check reviews and look for sellers contact information before placing your order.
- Shop ‘s’ for secure. When shopping online, make sure your payments are submitted via websites beginning with https:// and look for a lock symbol at the top of your browser.
- Trust your gut instincts. If a product or sale seems too good to be true, there is a chance that it is. Scrutinize the labels, packaging, and contents for irregularities to ensure the bargain is not a fake. Look for missing or expired “use by” dates and broken or missing safety seals. For online shoppers, look for poor website quality, spelling mistakes, and missing sale terms and conditions.
- Say something! Report faulty and questionable products. The government catches a large portion of counterfeit items, but many still make it to the market. Consumers can play an important role in combatting counterfeits by contacting the National IPR Center or the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
- Spread the word. Teach your family and friends how to avoid counterfeit products.
Back-to-school shopping should be a fun and exciting time for families – not a risky experience. These tips, and an increased awareness of the dangers of fake goods, can help consumers shop safe – not sorry.
David Hirschmann is the president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Intellectual Property Center.