What are problems with counterfeiting? A set of examples.

Counterfeit products pose potentially serious risks to consumers because they are not made to the original manufacturer’s specifications, have not been tested, and often do not perform as they should. This results in failure with potentially serious consequences. With the upcoming holiday season, this is important to keep this in mind.In this post I write my own opinion, not that of any organization.  
Author: Manu Steens

Why is it important to prevent counterfeiting?

One of the basic problems is that it has not been tested and approved according to standards. Partly because of this, there are different types of risks involved, namely:

1. Health Issues

2. Economic problems

3. Fire safety problems

4. Environmental problems

5. Problems with labour conditions

6. High probability of losing money

7. No customer service

8. Unwitting Sponsorship of Criminal Activities

The problem is rarely unique.

It is important to know that many dangerous products pose multiple risks at the same time. For example, a pesticide can be harmful to the environment and at the same time pose health risks to humans, a counterfeit medicine can pose both a safety and health threat. At the end of the story, you will often be economically disappointed. You think you’re saving money, maybe you think the economic loss to businesses isn’t your concern. But you must be aware of other things when you buy counterfeits. Often, in addition to possible damage, ‘the criminal milieu’ is also sponsored, with illegal activities of money laundering, drug trafficking and human trafficking. But it doesn’t stop there. We also sponsor international organized crime. For example, in the production of counterfeit products, there is often labour exploitation, coercion and corruption. All in all, society pays a high price.

Criminals don’t care about the safety of consumers. The quality of the product, or whether the chemicals they use are dangerous, are unimportant to them. The reputation of the copied brand is also unimportant to them – it is not their own reputation that is at stake.

I illustrate the eight risks here with examples of product counterfeits. Finally, I will give some tips on what the attentive consumer can do.

Fake medicines.

In particular, in the case of pharmaceuticals: (i) the adverse effects of improper active ingredients may occur, (ii) the inability to cure or prevent future diseases, increasing mortality, morbidity and prevalence of diseases, (iii) contribute to the progression of antimicrobial resistance and drug-resistant infections, (iv) reputational problem for the genuine products,  regardless of whether these are generic, v) financial problems for people who stay ill longer/too long, vi) lost income for the legitimate producers, vii) lost taxes and social security contributions…

Adulterated alcoholic beverages.

Alcoholic beverages are a rewarding product to counterfeit or smuggle in. One of the biggest dangers is contamination with methanol and other contaminants. As a result, in addition to death, a reduced level of consciousness, poor or no coordination, vomiting, abdominal pain and/or it can cause permanent blindness due to the destruction of the optic nerve. Dangers in general are (i) illness or death, (ii) damage to the brand of the counterfeit products, (iii) loss of revenue of the state (taxes), (iv) loss of income of the legitimate producers, (v) easier incitement of addictions with disruption of public order, (vi) criminal business and development of the black market.

Adulterated/expired food.

What are Consumer Packaged Goods? These are essentially your daily packaged foods and beverages. The food sector is big business. But there is also i) a market for expired beer, ii) if demand is high enough, there are toxic foods such as poisoned baby food was once a problem in China, iii) On social media there are videos on how to recognize real coffee from counterfeits, as well as for other products. Health problems are the first problem here.

Counterfeit smoking equipment.

In China alone, about 100 billion counterfeit cigarettes are produced every year. Many of them end up in the West. Because counterfeit cigarettes contain an excessive amount of tar and nicotine, this poses an increased risk to smokers. But they also pose a greater risk of fire, as they don’t go out on their own if they’re not actively smoked. This increases the risk of fire.

Counterfeit cosmetic products.

Some of the ingredients used to produce counterfeit cosmetics and fragrances are dangerous. Such cosmetics often contain carcinogenic substances.

Sometimes they contain urine, rat feces, and arsenic. Furthermore, they contain a wide variety of disgusting and toxic ingredients, including mercury, lead, cyanide, and paint stripper. As a result, the danger includes chemical burns, skin rashes, and long-term health problems.

Counterfeit toothpaste.

Tests on confiscated counterfeit toothpaste confirmed that it contained the product diethylene glycol (DEG), which can be harmful to health. DEG is a compound used as an antifreeze and sometimes as a thickener to replace glycerin. Antifreeze as a problem is known due to a historical wine adulteration.

Counterfeit contact lenses.

Tests of counterfeit contact lenses found them to be contaminated with dangerous bacteria.

After using the lenses, many customers complained about them and wondered if the contact lenses were genuine, and FDA approved. That turned out not to be the case. They received no compensation.

Counterfeit toys.

Finding cheaper products on the internet complicates the situation, as customers are sensitive to the lower prices. They don’t know that the product they are buying is counterfeit, substandard and unsafe. These are often popular toys that have been copied with other products, including a chemical that can damage the liver, kidneys, lungs and reproductive system. In addition, counterfeit toys contain dangerous amounts of carcinogenic plastics and heavy metals. And, when they break, it poses a choking hazard for younger children.

Electronics and electrical appliances.

Electronic devices can overheat. In doing so, they endanger the house and its surroundings. Counterfeit electronic products mainly contain the same materials as genuine electronic goods. These include toxic substances such as lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic, beryllium, and bromine, as well as gold, silver, copper, palladium, cobalt, aluminum, lithium and rare earth metals.

Semiconductors are incorporated into electronic equipment, which makes their detection difficult.

The reason is that due to shortages, stressed suppliers and companies were looking for new ways to meet the demand for semiconductors. In doing so, they went beyond their normal sources. The situation thus provided opportunities for counterfeiters to infiltrate markets. This created new risks. The use of fakes has been linked to several potentially life-threatening incidents.

Batteries are of particular importance. Lithium cells and batteries can pose both chemical and electrical hazards. Most lithium batteries contain a flammable electrolyte and have an incredibly high energy density. They can overheat and ignite under certain conditions. These fires are difficult to extinguish. Lithium cells and batteries can experience thermal runaway due to circumstances. This is a chain reaction that leads to a violent release of stored energy and flammable gas.

In addition to burning, subpar battery performance is also an issue. As such, they affect the performance of the devices they power.

Counterfeit car parts.

The Automotive Anti-Counterfeiting Council (A2C2) is actively involved in the fight against counterfeiting. Safety risks associated with non-compliant counterfeit products were identified. These included airbags, body and construction parts, brakes, engine and drivetrain, suspension parts, wheels, and tires. Any of these can cause accidents due to failure.

Adulterated pesticides and agrochemicals.

Counterfeit pesticides and agrochemicals are widely traded internationally. They are sold untested and are generally toxic. Most of the time, they contain components that are very different from the original product. Farmers sometimes succumb to the financial pressure on their farms.

In some areas, its use destroyed crops and poisoned the fields for years to come. This leads to serious situations for people’s health, but also for their financial situation. Insects that survive the counterfeit come out stronger as a species and can further damage agriculture. Then there is the risky transport by counterfeiters. Due to poor packaging during shipping, the products can end up in waterways, which is detrimental to ecosystems. Or as some time ago, a ship can explode in the port city and render an entire port unusable for long periods and cause many deaths. (Beirut, 2020/08/04)

Non-genuine software.

Illegitimate software downloads can be riddled with malware. Examples include computer viruses, Trojan horses, spyware or botware. They are specifically designed to damage a computer, destroy data, compromise security, or steal someone’s identity. Ransomware is all about extortion.

Counterfeit outdoor clothing.

High-quality outdoor clothing is designed to keep the wearer alive in the most hostile environments, such as heavy rainfall and cold nights. Counterfeit outdoor clothing is designed to imitate authentic brands in terms of appearance,  but does not aim to provide insulation against cold or heat and safety for the wearer.

Counterfeit sunglasses.

Sunglasses should protect the wearer’s eyes from harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Legal sunglasses in the West are subject to regulations about it. The darker a pair of sunglasses, the wider the person’s pupils. Therefore, fakes without UV protection are more dangerous than no glasses at all. Risks include the gradual deterioration of eye functions, temporary blindness, and even cancer.

What can consumers do to protect themselves from counterfeits?

The most important rule is to buy a product from a well-known manufacturer or supplier. Especially online, we don’t know who to trust.

Be wary of unusually low prices. It is best to check the official website of a product to see pictures of the real product and check its description. Check the product and packaging. Check the quality of the logos and check the texts for spelling mistakes. Watch out for unusual brand names.

Check whether the product has a required safety standard, such as the CE mark or a label from a national or international food and consumer product safety authority.

Educate yourself about intellectual property in general and the issue of counterfeiting in particular. This will help you understand the various negative effects that counterfeit goods have on our health and safety, the environment, the economy, and society…

If you do buy online, check that the website is the real one and that the product description mentions that it is an original. Not a ‘similar to’ product.

Do not provide your bank details until you have verified that the online store has procedures in place to protect your data and has a secure online payment system.

If you have an app on your smartphone that can scan a barcode, scan it and see if it lists the correct product.

Manu Steens

Manu works at the Flemish Government in risk management and Business Continuity Management. On this website, he shares his own opinions regarding these and related fields.

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