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Holiday scams

Feds warn of hazardous counterfeit items

Image | freestocks

The man bought a “knockoff” of a popular electronic game from an Internet website for half the price of the genuine item. He was pleased that he had discovered such a bargain. When the game arrived, the man unwrapped it and plugged it in. The game exploded, knocking the man to the floor, and a fire began. The fire spread quickly throughout the house, destroying all of his belongings, including the Christmas gifts under the tree.

The counterfeit game turned out to be not much of a bargain after all.

Scenarios like this are why the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has developed an online holiday shopping toolkit at ice.gov/topics/holiday-shopper to help consumers protect themselves from substandard or even hazardous counterfeit toys, electronics, cosmetics and other products.

ICE’s advisory offers holiday shopping tips from the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center. The IPR Center, which directs the federal government’s response to combat global intellectual property theft, and enforces intellectual property rights violations, has partnered with ICE, the FBI and other federal agencies to combat counterfeit products and inform the public of the dangers of them.

“For most, the holidays represent a season of goodwill and giving, but for criminals, it’s the season to lure in unsuspecting holiday shoppers,” said IPR Center Director Matt Allen. “One of the key principles of crime prevention is education, and this holiday guide ensures consumers are equipped with advice from experts on how to protect their personal financial data and avoid buying gifts that can be harmful to their loved ones.”

Counterfeit goods not only cheat the consumer with substandard and potentially hazardous products, the feds note, but the websites also put shoppers at risk of having their personal and financial data stolen for other nefarious purposes. Online shopping is particularly vulnerable to scams that trick the user into buying counterfeit and pirated goods.

“Criminals don’t take the holidays off, so it’s important for consumers to be aware of ways they can protect themselves this busy season,” said Acting Deputy Assistant Director Carlton Peeples of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division. “The FBI collaborates with our law enforcement and private sector partners at the IPR Center year-round to combat the sale of counterfeit goods, which threaten public health and safety and impose high costs to the U.S. economy. Everyone can help identify and thwart counterfeiters, and this year, we encourage the public to use our holiday shopping toolkit to avoid becoming a scammer’s next victim.”

The IPR Center recommends that consumers purchase goods only from reputable retailers. Read product reviews on websites and research companies you aren’t familiar with. Check seller reviews and verify there is a working phone number and address for the seller, in case you have questions about the legitimacy of a product. If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. Don’t buy expensive items from third party websites.

Fake products, in addition to posing real dangers to the public’s safety and health, also hurt the country’s economy. Fake products cost Americans their jobs, threaten consumer health and safety, and fund criminal activity. The feds state that, every year, they seize millions of counterfeit goods from countries around the world, worth billions of dollars. Between October 2020, and July 2021, the feds made 22,849 seizures worth $2.5 billion. Billions more were lost to legitimate businesses and the profits from counterfeit products went to criminals and criminal organizations.

Some of the most dangerous counterfeit products involve automotive parts, electronics, safety equipment, prescription drugs, and cosmetics due to the potential threats they present to public safety and public health. Counterfeit airbags and their components can cause severe malfunctions ranging from non-deployment, under inflation, and over inflation to explosion of metal shrapnel during deployment in a crash. Counterfeit lithium-ion laptop batteries pose significant risk of extreme heat, self-igniting, and exploding. Counterfeit helmets and baby carriers can break. Counterfeit prescription drugs may not contain the active ingredient or could lead to accidental overdose. Counterfeit cosmetics can cause severe skin reactions.

The feds advise consumers that counterfeit goods usually bear the trademark of a legitimate and trusted brand, but they were not made to the specifications of the original manufacturer. They’re often produced illegally and sold at a profit to fund other criminal activities. This makes the production and trafficking of counterfeit goods a transnational crime, commonly linked to transnational criminal organizations.

“Law enforcement has identified a trend of counterfeited products that is growing at an alarming rate,” said Steve Francis, Assistant Director for HSI’s Global Trade Investigations Division and Director of the IPR Center. “At best, these products will not perform as well as authentic products. At worst, they can fail catastrophically.”

Paul Davis’ Crime Beat column appears here each week. You can contact him via pauldavisoncrime.com.

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    • Paul Davis

      Having worked as a crime reporter and columnist in Philadelphia for many years, Paul Davis has covered organized crime, cybercrime, street crime, white collar crime, crime prevention, espionage and terrorism. He can be reached at pauldavisoncrime.com

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