MSUToday
Published: April 28, 2020

Ask the experts: avoiding counterfeit products when shopping online

Contact(s): Caroline Brooks Communications and Brand Strategy office: 517-432-0920 brooks78@msu.edu, Elizabeth Schondelmayer CABS Integration schonde3@msu.edu, Jay Kennedy School of Criminal Justice office: (517) 353-5225 jpk@msu.edu, Jeff Rojek School of Criminal Justice office: (517) 432-4232 rojekjef@msu.edu, Kari Kammel Center for Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection office: (517) 353-2163 kkammel@msu.edu

Do you expect the hand sanitizer you ordered online to be counterfeit? The hope is that it’s not, but there’s a chance it might be. The current health crisis has forced consumers around the world to shop online – and caused demand for certain products to spike – leading to a rise in the global counterfeit market.

With everything from aspirin to cookies making its way through the global supply chain, it’s critical that the public make informed decisions about the products they buy to avoid purchasing fake products.

Experts from Michigan State University’s Center for Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection – Jeff Rojek, Jay Kennedy and Kari Kammel – discuss ways online shoppers can avoid illegitimate products and ultimately protect themselves and their families.

What counterfeits are and why they're dangerous

Contrary to popular belief, buying and selling counterfeit goods is not a victimless crime, yet the impact of the counterfeit market is complex, far-reaching and more damaging than one might think.

“No one knows where these products come from or what conditions they come out of,” Kammel said. “Especially if the product is digestible or goes on or near your skin – it’s a huge risk. Many counterfeit makeup products contain toxic chemicals and counterfeit fashion or toy products are colored with lead paint.”

Beyond these urgent health concerns, the purchase of counterfeit products can help fund criminal organizations and terrorist groups.

“There's research drawing connections between counterfeit goods, terrorism and organized crime,” Kennedy said. “Some of the profit generated by those sales thus supports terrorism and criminal activity.”

Counterfeit goods also hurt businesses ranging from consumer brands to independent artists.

“If you were to create something great at your workplace and someone took credit for it and took your income, you would be angry about that. It's the exact same ethical concept, even when it’s a business,” Rojek said.

How to spot – and avoid – counterfeits

1. Examine the product…very carefully

“Ask yourself, 'where is the product being offered? Is the price comparable to similar products? Who is the seller of the item?’ This can help tell you if the product is likely suspicious,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy also noted that, especially on e-commerce sites, buyers should pay close attention to product descriptions.

“We've noticed that, particularly with counterfeit items released quickly in response to immediate consumer demand, there are a lot of spelling errors,” he said. “Take note of words that are stuck together, look like they were run through Google translate, and overall don't make sense from a syntax perspective.”

2. Be wary – any product can be a counterfeit!

When thinking of counterfeit products, many go to items like handbags – but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“Almost every and any product you can think of can have counterfeits,” Rojek said. “From fashion items to car and computer parts. We’ve even seen people selling counterfeit archery arrows.”

A major risk is the shocking amount of counterfeit pharmaceuticals and medical supplies, which Kennedy discussed in a recent piece for The Conversation. In fact, Rojek noted that over 90% of online pharmacies are illegitimate and carry counterfeit medications.

3. Don’t panic!

Panic-buying can lead consumers to stock up on items they may not need, causing them to miss warning signs they otherwise would have noticed. If you cannot get an N-95 mask from a legitimate seller or a COVID-19 testing kit from a legitimate seller, the ones you see online are probably counterfeit or fake.

“Consumers are freaked out, so they're buying a lot and not properly vetting the items they’re purchasing,” Kammel said. “They're making higher-risk purchases they usually wouldn't make because they're afraid.”