Thursday, August 16, 2018

The Realist: "Counterfeit Products"

This is a guest post by The Realist:


Counterfeit Products

       Disclaimer: The following article reflects my personal experience comparing numerous authentic and counterfeit products, and studying various discussions about counterfeit products. This article reflects my unique circumstances, and my subjective observations and opinions. Your mileage may vary. If you have any questions about the legality of owning, using, or selling counterfeit, knockoff, or pirated products, consult with an intellectual property attorney licensed to practice law in your jurisdiction.


        This counterfeit product discussion was originally intended to be a brief portion of another article, but it became large enough to merit separate treatment. I will begin this article by discussing the scope and nature of product counterfeiting. Then, I will examine several specific counterfeit products I have encountered in my online buying. And finally, I will discuss some strategies for avoiding the purchase of counterfeit products.

        Counterfeiting is big business. International trade in fake goods (both counterfeiting and piracy) is estimated to top $1.7 trillion in 2018, representing approximately 2-percent of all world economic output, and 10-percent of goods sold. In 2017, 89-percent of U.S. Customs and Border Protection seizures of counterfeit goods came from China (48%) and Hong Kong (39%), with the most commonly seized product categories being apparel, watches and jewelry, footwear, and consumer electronics.

       Just about any product you can imagine has been counterfeited, including luxury goods, toys, pharmaceuticals, medical instruments, cosmetics, perfume, foodstuffs, automotive parts, aircraft parts, electronic components, chemicals, and machinery.

      For purposes of this brief discussion, a "counterfeit" product is one that is nearly identical to the authentic product, is intended to be passed off as the authentic product, and carries the authentic product's trademarks. A "knockoff" is a product that is nearly identical to the authentic product, but does not carry the authentic product's trademarks. There are also fakes that illegally use trademarks on products the trademark owner does not sell - those fakes are outside the scope of this discussion. Closely related to counterfeiting is piracy, which is the illegal copying or distribution of copyrighted works.

       A good counterfeit will be difficult to distinguish from the authentic product, especially from the pictures you might see on ebay or some other e-commerce site. Knockoffs are generally "good enough" to fool people not intimately familiar with the authentic product.

      Counterfeits and knockoffs will usually be of inferior quality. This inferior quality can just be annoying (e.g. poor fit and finish) or it can result in an unsafe product (e.g. counterfeit pharmaceuticals, counterfeit aircraft parts).

       One of my first exposures to known counterfeit products was many years ago via a friend who was a private detective whose clients included a large well known media/entertainment company and several clothing and accessory manufacturers. The counterfeit products he encountered were primarily women's purses and unlicensed apparel (e.g. tee-shirts with printed cartoon characters or sports team insignia). He found these counterfeit products in retail stores, at kiosks in shopping malls, and at large flea markets.

       The counterfeit products this friend encountered were of universally inferior quality. The tee-shirts with unlicensed cartoon characters and sports team insignia were made of thin fabric, especially noticeable when compared to the licensed products. The workmanship on the women's purses was passable, but there were minor defects that would have never been allowed on an authentic brand-name purse.

       I attend an annual professional conference where there is regularly a presentation discussing counterfeit products. At the most recent conference, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) discussed some of the counterfeit goods they have encountered. This presentation was mostly focused on counterfeit lithium ion battery packs, but it also had a brief discussion about catastrophic failures caused by counterfeit bearings.

      Counterfeit lithium ion battery packs have caused fires and serious injuries. The first example presented was large burn on a woman's thigh caused by a counterfeit cell phone battery pack that had caught fire while the woman slept with her cell phone in a pocket - this woman will have a large scar from that burn for the rest of her life. Several examples of fires caused by counterfeit lithium battery packs in hover boards were shown, including one fire that required the evacuation of a shopping mall for several hours. The lithium battery packs lacked critical safety features and had counterfeit UL-listing labels.

      Examples of the harm caused by counterfeit bearings included the failure of a front axle of a light truck, and the failure of a jet engine in an aircraft.

      CBP will seize shipments of counterfeit goods when they are discovered. This is easier to do when it is a shipping container full of counterfeit goods. It is much more difficult when it is a small parcel containing only one or a few items being shipped into the United States through the mail.

Ebay, Amazon and Other E-Commerce Sites

       Ebay, Alibaba, and Amazon are all known to be potential sources of counterfeit goods. I have not personally ordered anything through Alibaba, but I have seen counterfeit goods for sale on that site.

       Most of my experience with on-line buying is through ebay and Amazon.

       There are all kinds of counterfeit products available on ebay. Ebay has policies and penalties to deal with the sale of counterfeit products, however even a cursory search for information about counterfeits on ebay turns up many discussions were buyers reported counterfeit products and ebay did nothing. At best, if a buyer buys a counterfeit product and reports it to ebay, ebay may refund the buyer's money.

       There are persistent reports of counterfeit products being sold on Amazon. In some respects, identifying a counterfeit product on Amazon's web site can be more difficult than ebay given the prevalent use of stock product photos. Obviously, the risk is higher when the product is sold and shipped by a third-party affiliate, especially if the product is being shipped from China. It can even be risky when the product is sold by a third-party affiliate but "fulfilled by Amazon." You are not immune to the risk of buying a counterfeit product even when it is "Ships from and sold by Amazon.com."


Knockoff (left), counterfeit (center), and authentic (right) Gerber MP600 DET EOD multitool. The counterfeit carries the Gerber trademark. On the counterfeit multitool, the "U.S.A." is laser etched, whereas it is stamped into the side of the authentic multitool. Note that the pivot screws are different between the counterfeit and authentic multitools - pivot screws on the counterfeit have a center hole for a hex key/bit.

Knockoff (left), counterfeit (center), and authentic (right) Gerber MP600 DET EOD multitool with the individual tools and blades fanned out. The knockoff and counterfeit have the same set of tools and blades, while the authentic multitool has the RemGrit blade (shown removed from multitool in lower inset). The knockoff and counterfeit multitools also use flat slider spring clips (upper inset, top) to hold the pliers head to the handles, while the authentic multitool uses slider spring clips with a shallow wave to improve head movement (upper inset, bottom).

Counterfeit and Knockoff Multitools

       This article got its start from observing a knockoff Gerber multitool being sold on ebay.

       I have seen knockoff and counterfeit Gerber multitools and counterfeit Leatherman Tread multitool bracelets being sold on ebay. There are also a fair number of what appear to be counterfeit keychain multitools being sold on ebay, but these tools are outside the scope of this discussion.

       Beyond what I just mentioned, I have not been able to identify any other counterfeit/knockoff multitool listings on ebay. This statement should not be construed to suggest that there are not other counterfeit/knockoff multitool listings on ebay.

       I have not had an opportunity to physically examine and compare authentic and counterfeit/knockoff Leatherman Tread multitool bracelets. However, I have been able to physically compare a common counterfeit/knockoff Gerber multitool, the Gerber MP600 DET (Demolition Explosion Tool) EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal).

       For reasons I do not understand, Chinese manufacturers are making knockoffs and counterfeits of the Gerber MP600 DET EOD, instead of the more useful non-DET-EOD version of the MP600. I have seen Chinese ebay sellers, and an Amazon affiliate seller probably located in China, selling these knockoffs and counterfeits.

       The Gerber MP600 DET EOD multitool is designed for use by military combat engineers. In addition to several screwdriver bits, a partially serrated knife blade with a straight edge, a file, a can opener, and pliers, it has a blasting cap crimper, and a sharp punch for making holes in blocks/sticks of explosives for inserting a blasting cap or detonation cord. It also has a "RemGrit" replaceable saw blade.

       The knockoff Gerber MP600 DET EOD is unbranded, lacks the RemGrit saw, has a slightly different tool mix, the edge of the knife blade is curved like early versions of the MP600 DET EOD, and the multitool is painted black instead of having a black-oxide finish. It was one-tenth the price of the authentic product.

       As of this writing, there is one Chinese seller who is selling new counterfeit Gerber MP600 DET EOD multitools. It appears to be the same product as the knockoff I just described, but carries Gerber trademarks, and has "U.S.A." as the country of origin marking laser etched (not stamped like the authentic product) on it. (I have seen pictures of counterfeit versions of the MP600 DET EOD with "U.S.A." stamped into it.) It is selling for one-quarter the price of the authentic product. And, as I was wrapping up this article, I saw a used counterfeit MP600 DET EOD being sold by a domestic ebay seller - I don't believe the seller knows he has a counterfeit.


Counterfeit Gerber Knives

       For quite a while, I have been aware that some Gerber knives were being counterfeited, which included the Bear Grylls knives. (There are reports of other major knife brands having their knives counterfeited, too.) While Bear Grylls no longer has a major television show and products carrying his name have largely disappeared from the stores, they are still available through Amazon and ebay.

      Gerber has provided TheCounterfeitReport.com with information about how to distinguish between three different models of authentic and counterfeit Bear Grylls knives. While that information is helpful, it is not dispositive. There are multiple variants of some knives that are not adequately addressed in Gerber's information.

      For this article, I acquired several authentic and counterfeit Bear Grylls "Scout" knives so I could do a detailed comparison. I used Gerber's information on TheCounterfeitReport.com to help select examples.

      Unlike many other counterfeit products I've seen on ebay, the Bear Grylls knives did not appear to be significantly discounted relative to the price of an authentic knife. And, unlike sellers of many other counterfeit and knockoff products, most of the sellers of counterfeit Bear Grylls knives appeared to be located inside the US.

Three examples of the Gerber Bear Grylls Scout knife: authentic example, one of unsure provenance, and counterfeit example. The authentic knife has distinct steps on the thumb studs, flush screw in the belt clip, and sharp molding of the handle.


        The counterfeit Scout knife came with a counterfeit copy of "Bear Grylls Priorities of Survival Pocket Guide," a wilderness survival pamphlet included with every Bear Grylls product. The first thing I noticed was how sloppy the folding was compared to the authentic Pocket Guide. The second thing I noticed was how heavy the Pocket Guide felt - it weighed over 8 grams, compared 4 grams for the authentic Pocket Guide. The counterfeit Pocket Guide was printed on a glossy clay-coated paper that will glue itself together if it ever gets wet, whereas the authentic pocket guide was printed on a waterproof plastic material. The third thing I noticed was the inferior printing quality, including difficult to read topic headings which are white letters on a hatched gray background.

       With the knife itself, I observed several noticeable differences: handle molding differences, thumb stud differences, and pocket clip attachment screw differences.

       The most obvious difference with the knife was the quality of the molding of the knife's handle. The handle is double-injection molded, with a rigid orange plastic structure over-molded with a soft gray plastic to form the non-slip grip. With the counterfeit knife, the border between the orange and gray plastics is somewhat indistinct compared to the authentic knife. Further, the orange "BG" logo on the handle has "BEAR GRYLLS" molded into it in small characters. In the counterfeit, "BEAR GRYLLS" is shallow and indistinct, while it is deeper and sharp on the authentic knife.

       The thumb studs on the blade of the counterfeit knife are comparatively crude, while the thumb studs on the authentic knife have nice distinct steps.

       The knife has a pocket clip held on by a couple of screws. On the authentic knife, both Torx screws are flush, while on the counterfeit knife, the screw under the loop of the clip is a pan-head Torx screw.

       I also acquired a third example of the Scout knife in blister-pack packaging from Amazon. To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure if I got an authentic knife or a counterfeit knife. The "Bear Grylls Priorities of Survival Pocket Guide" was folded sloppily and printed on glossy clay-coated paper, although the printing quality was better than that of the known counterfeit. The over-molded soft gray plastic had slightly obscured an edge of the "BG" logo, while the "BEAR GRYLLS" molded into the logo was deep and sharp like the authentic product. The thumb studs on the blade looked better than the counterfeit, but were inferior to the known authentic knife. And, the screw under the pocket clip loop was a pan-head screw, instead of being flush like the authentic knife. There were a few other details that suggested to me that it may be an authentic knife. However, if I was forced to make a decision, I would err on the side of caution and consider it a counterfeit.


Knockoff (top) and authentic (bottom) Gerber Bear Grylls Parang machete.

Knockoff Parang Machete

       I have had a Gerber Bear Grylls Parang machete for several years. Recently, I stumbled across an obvious knock-off of the Parang, called the "Necromancer Zombie Killer Parang Machete." The manufacturer may have originally intended to produce a counterfeit, but modified the handle molds to make it less Bear Grylls like, and more zombie-killer like. The place where the "BG" logo was located on the handle was filled in with a crawling zombie figure so the logo area isn't simply an orange rectangle. The two corners on the right side of the rectangle remain slightly rounded like in the original "BG" logo.


Counterfeit Swiss Army Knives

        As I illustrated in a prior article about buying Swiss Army Knives (SAKs) on ebay (http://practicaleschatology.blogspot.com/2016/10/buying-swiss-army-knives-on-ebay-realist.html), there are a wide variety of knockoff SAKs being sold, and their quality is generally poor.

       I have seen credible reports of counterfeit SAKs being sold on ebay and other e-commerce sites, and I recently encountered a counterfeit SAK being offered by an ebay seller in China. This counterfeit had the Victorinox cross-inside-a-shield logo printed on one of the scales and it came in a nice gift box emblazoned with the Victorinox logo. Beyond the logos, it was a typical poor quality knockoff SAK. Just looking at the pictures on ebay, it might be possible to mistake it for an authentic SAK. However, when inspecting the physical knife, it is obvious that it is a counterfeit.


Authentic (real) and counterfeit (fake) Swiss Army knives. The authentic knife has thicker tools, and "OFFICIER SUISSE" and "VICTORINOX SWISS MADE STAINLESS" on the ricasso (base) of the blade. The counterfeit knife has thinner tools and only "STAINLESS" on the ricasso.

       Authentic Victorinox knives carry a distinctive logo with a cross inside a shield and are marked "VICTORINOX SWISS MADE STAINLESS" and "OFFICIER SUISSE" on the ricasso (base) of the main blade. (The small SD Classic SAK may say "VICTORINOX SWITZERLAND STAINLESS ROSTFREI" on the ricasso, and will omit "OFFICIER SUISSE".) "Authentic Wenger knives carry a similar logo with a cross inside a shield and are marked "Wenger" on the ricasso of the main blade. Knockoff SAKs will frequently have some kind of logo on the scales, and simply say "Stainless" or "Stainless China" on the ricasso of the main blade.

       Most SAKs are composed of multiple blades with interspersed dividers riveted together. However, authentic SAKs have thicker blades and tools than the knockoff knives. The thinner blades and tools of the knockoff SAKs can be identified in most product pictures.


Counterfeit Fuses

       A couple of years ago, I wanted a spare fuse for my Fluke multimeter. My multimeter uses a type of fuse known as a High Rupturing Capacity (HRC) fuse, which incorporates several safety features to reduce the risk of injury if the fuse blows. Using an authentic fuse is important for the safe operation of that multimeter.

       The local store I first tried to buy the fuse from was out of stock, so I ordered a fuse through Amazon. I wasn't paying attention and ended up ordering it from an Amazon affiliate in China. When I received the fuse, it didn't quite look right. But, there was nothing I could point to that strongly indicated it was a counterfeit. I ended up buying additional fuses through a trusted electronics distributor, and through the local store which finally had them back in stock.

Counterfeit (left) and authentic (right) Bussmann multimeter fuses. The authentic fuse has BUSSMAN and the fuse type stamped into one of the end caps.
       I believe I got a counterfeit fuse from that Amazon affiliate. It lacked the "BUSSMANN" brand name and fuse type stamped into one of the end caps as found on the authentic fuses, and the crimping of the end caps was different from the authentic fuses. The labels looked the same, and the counterfeit fuse had the same weight and internal resistance as the authentic fuses. The authentic fuses are made in Mexico, and label on the counterfeit fuse also says it was made in Mexico.

       It seems rather odd that a Chinese seller would be selling products to US consumers that were made in Mexico.


Counterfeit Game Cartridges

       If you or your children are into retro-gaming, it is likely you will eventually end up on ebay buying game consoles and game cartridges.

       Counterfeit video game cartridges are common on ebay. Externally, some of these counterfeit cartridges are very convincing. The software contained in these counterfeit cartridges is obviously pirated.

       These counterfeit game cartridges are generally identified as "reproductions" in the ebay listing title, but relying on the honesty of the seller is not sufficient to distinguish between authentic and counterfeit game cartridges.

       Counterfeit Nintendo Game Boy cartridges are fairly easy to spot in photos. At the top of the cartridge, in the finger groove the authentic cartridge says "Nintendo GAME BOY," while the counterfeit only says "GAME." The fit and finish of the counterfeit cartridge is also inferior, with uneven seams where the two halves of the cartridge meet.

       Counterfeiters of Nintendo Game Boy Advance cartridges have improved their product to eliminate many of the external differences people have reported finding to distinguish authentic and counterfeit game cartridges. Today there are only a couple of very minor external distinguishing differences between authentic and counterfeit game Game Boy Advance cartridges - the font for "GAME BOY ADVANCE" text at the top of the cartridge is thicker on the authentic cartridge (even this difference is being mitigated by the counterfeiters), and a two digit production code is stamped into the paper label on the authentic cartridge. However, the only sure way to tell if a game cartridge is authentic or counterfeit is to disassemble the cartridge to examine the printed circuit board (PCB) inside the cartridge.

Authentic (far left) and counterfeit (center left) Pokemon Red cartridges for the Nintendo Game Boy. Authentic (center right) and counterfeit (far right) Legend of Zelda cartridges for the Nintendo Gameboy Advance.
       It is also worth noting that there are many "multi-carts" being sold on ebay. A multi-cart is a game cartridge containing a library of games. Sometimes, the cartridge will contain dozens or hundreds of games, and sometimes the cartridge will only contain a handful of games from a particular series/franchise. These multi-carts contain pirated software.

       In my experience with these counterfeit video game cartridges, about half of them require some adjustments - typically the PCB doesn't fit quite right in the cartridge housing - to get them to insert properly into the game console.


Counterfeit USB Flash Drives and SD Cards

       I would be remiss if I didn't briefly discuss counterfeit USB flash drives and SD cards (including micro-SD cards). Counterfeit USB flash drives and SD cards are so prevalent that I would never consider buying either of these products through ebay. I would cautiously buy them from Amazon, but only if it is "Ships from and sold by Amazon.com." They are generally safe to buy if in unopened original packaging from a brick-and-mortar retailer - it is too easy for someone to buy an authentic item, then replace it with a counterfeit before returning it to the retailer to get a refund.

       Counterfeit USB flash drives and SD cards are typically low capacity devices reprogrammed to report a much larger capacity. Then, when data is written to these devices, they will soon start overwriting previously written data, resulting in the loss or corruption of data. There are utilities to test the actual capacity of USB flash drives and SD cards. They accomplish the test by filling up the device to its stated capacity, then reading back the data to verify its integrity - very time consuming.

       I have seen counterfeit USB flash drives and SD cards sold on Amazon. The counterfeit devices were claiming astonishing storage capacities for very modest prices, and were either unbranded or unrecognized brands.


Avoiding Knockoffs and Counterfeits

       Above, I have discussed several specific counterfeit products I have personally encountered and had an opportunity to examine in detail.

       Unfortunately, there is no guaranteed way to avoid counterfeit/knockoff products when buying on ebay, Amazon, or some other e-commerce site. However, there are several strategies you can employ to reduce the risk of unknowingly buying a counterfeit/knockoff product.

       First, is the price significantly lower that the price you are expecting to pay for the product? Counterfeiters rely on the greed of the buyer to entice them into buying the lower-priced counterfeit.

       A high price does not guarantee a genuine product, as discussed above with the Bear Grylls knives. Similarly, a low price does not guarantee a counterfeit. I have personally purchased deeply discounted authentic products being clearanced by a retailer. Many retailers will sell customer returns (open packages that can no longer be sold as new) in bulk to people who will then inspect and resell those products through ebay or at flea markets.

       Second, does the product look right? This question has two parts: 1) Do you have a sufficiently detailed knowledge of the product you intend to purchase, including its features and appearance? 2) Is the packaging, trademarks, and other trade dress attributes consistent with those of the manufacturer?

       You need to be knowledgeable about the product you intend to purchase. First to help identify counterfeits, and second to avoid misidentified products being offered online - this is a problem I see regularly on ebay. For new-in-package items, you need to be familiar with how the product can be packaged. This gets complicated when the manufacturer updates their packaging. For example, the early Bear Grylls products were packaged in blister packs with a picture of Bear Grylls from his <i>Man vs. Wild</i> program printed on the package. Later Bear Grylls products were packaged in a blister pack consistent with the trade dress of other Gerber cutlery products - prominent Gerber trademarks in orange on a hatched dark grey background - with Bear Grylls only mentioned secondarily as part of the product description. Further, Gerber also sold Bear Grylls knives in simple boxes to knife dealers where their inventory would always be locked up.

       Third, are you buying from an authorized retailer/distributor? Many manufacturers have established distribution channels for getting their products to market. These channels minimize the risk of counterfeit products being sold which could harm the manufacturer's good will and reputation. This gets real muddy with the pervasiveness of on-line retailers, such as Amazon and Walmart, who will let just about anybody sell products though their web sites.

       Fourth, is a product that was only manufactured many years ago being offered as "new" today? The product can be "new-old-stock" - an authentic product - where a small inventory of the product was found in the back of a warehouse or otherwise squirreled away. New-old-stock is legitimate, but you will likely not be able to get support from the manufacturer, or the product may have deteriorated in some manner and may not perform as designed. The product might also be newly manufactured counterfeit products, such as those "reproduction" video game cartridges I described above.

        Fifth, pay attention to the location of your seller/retailer. There are a lot of truly interesting legitimate products being sold by Chinese sellers, such as the Audiomax SR-202 radio I reviewed in the past (http://practicaleschatology.blogspot.com/2015/02/the-realist-ultra-portable-radios.html). At the same time, there are a lot of counterfeit products coming out of China. Ebay generally tells you were a seller is located, but Amazon does not. One indication I have found to identify a Chinese seller on Amazon is to look at the estimated delivery date. A delivery date of a month or so in the future strongly suggests a Chinese seller.


Conclusion

        This article has only scratched the surface on the topic of counterfeiting. I began this article by discussing the scope and nature of product counterfeiting. I then examined several specific counterfeit products I have encountered in my online buying. And finally, I presented some strategies for avoiding the purchase of counterfeit products.

       If you are a prepper or otherwise try to prepare for emergencies, you need to be doubly careful to avoid counterfeit products. You don't want to discover that you purchased a counterfeit product when you try to use it in the middle of an emergency, and it fails to perform.

      Caveat emptor. Be a careful and knowledgeable shopper.

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Resources:


Gerber MP600 DET EOD product page:

A forum thread showing numerous Leatherman knockoffs:

A forum thread about the counterfeit Gerber MP600 DET EOD:

Extended discussion about counterfeiting and counterfeit consumer goods:

Economic impact of counterfeiting:

U.S. Customs and Border Protection resources:

Information about a wide variety of counterfeit products:

GAO report on counterfeit goods, GAO-18-216, "Intellectual Property: Agencies Can Improve Efforts to Address Risks Posed by Changing Counterfeits Market":

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