What you need to know about deadly counterfeits

Consumer Reports identifies knockoff products that pose serious threats to your health and safety

Published: August 18, 2015 01:00 PM
The legitimate cell phone batteries, left, bear the Samsung name and "+" and "-" symbols.

The sale of counterfeit products is far from a victimless crime, as we explained in "The True Cost of Fake Goods." Counterfeiting benefits illicit activities such as drug and human trafficking, child labor, and even terrorism, according to officials who follow the money. While many fakes are simply cheap knockoffs of designer duds, others have potentially devastating health and safety consequences. Here are some that are particularly dangerous.


Nine percent of all fakes seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection last year were prescription drugs and personal care products. The problem with drugs: They could be subpotent, superpotent, expired, or adulterated. Bogus pharmaceuticals are sold via unapproved Internet pharmacies, which sometimes try to fool consumers by posting reassuring symbols like a stolen Food & Drug Administration logo. Online pharmacies peddling inexpensive prescription drugs purportedly from Canada have been have revealed as fronts for rogue operations based in Russia, Asia, and the Middle East.

Most fake online pharmacies lack adequate safeguards to protect personal and financial information; some intentionally misuse your information. These sites may also infect your computer with viruses or sell your personal information to other rogue websites and Internet scams.

Signs of fake pharmacies: They allow you to buy drugs without a doctor's prescription; offer unrealistically deep discounts; and send spam or unsolicited email pitches for cheap drugs; and are located outside of the United States. Check to see that an online drugstore is licensed by your state's pharmacy board (visit the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy). Legitimate sellers always require a valid prescription, have a physical address and telephone number in the U.S., and have a licensed pharmacist on hand to answer your questions. If you believe you have received counterfeit medicin, contact the FDA's Office of Criminal Investigations at 800-551-3989.

Auto parts

The distribution of illicit aftermarket auto parts is growing at an alarming rate, according to Bruce Foucart, director of the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center. The parts are typically smuggled into the country and sold to independent stores, sometimes knowingly, sometimes not. "At best these parts will not perform as well as authentic ones. At worst, they can fail catastrophically with potentially fatal consequences." Foucart says virtually every vehicle component is subject to knockoff: brake pads, oil and fuel filters, spark plugs, airbags, tires, smart keys, water pumps, and so forth. Some of the most dangerous ones, like airbags, can explode in the victim's face during an accident

According to Ford, counterfeit brakes often have poor-quality steel backing plates and weak or no shim bonding to the backplate. And the pads are often made from compressed-wood chips and sawdust. Shortcuts in paint materials and application can also lead to corrosion. General Motors says you should insist on genuine parts from authorized dealers and retailers. When buying parts on your own, the company says to inspect packaging carefully for the correct brand name, logo, and graphics. Be wary of subtle differences in colors, artwork, fonts, and spelling, for instance, "AZDelco" instead of "ACDelco." Large price differences should send up a red flag, too.

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Fake "UL" labels

Underwriters Laboratories puts its safety seal on more than 22 billion products annually. Because so many consumers rely on a UL listing as a sign of integrity, fraudsters sometimes create knockoff labels on appliances and electronics, particularly low-cost, high-volume items such as power strips, extension cords, and holiday lights sold at deep-discount stores, garage sales, flea markets, bazaars, and on shady websites. More recently, they've targeted popular devices like mobile phone chargers and batteries, says John Drengenburg, UL's safety director. Using products bearing counterfeit UL marks could cause fire and shock hazards, among other dangers, because of manufacturing shortcuts. For instance, extension cords with fake marks have been found with undersized of inadequate copper wiring to carry the current.


Counterfeit small appliances such as electric hair dryers can be deadly. For years, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has warned people about substandard dryers that lack a ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) to protect against electrical shock or electrocution.

Rechargeable batteries

Replacing a smartphone battery can be expensive, so instead of purchasing a costly replacement from the manufacturer, consumers might consider a no-name or off-brand substitute instead. That can be a costly blunder. Most wireless devices use lithium-ion batteries because they're lightweight, capable of holding their charge a long time, take plenty of recharges, and don't contain toxic metals. Trouble is, they are sensitive to physical stresses, according to CTIA The Wireless Association, a trade group. Even legitimate ones must be kept away from hot surfaces and metal objects such as coins, keys, or jewelry. Too much pressure on the battery can cause an internal short-circuit, resulting in overheating. The use of counterfeits could result in the battery expanding, exploding, or catching fire, says Samsung.

Find out why ordering prescripion arthritis drugs from Canada is a bad idea.

Fake out: The most counterfeited categories

Last year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents confiscated more than 23,000 shipments of counterfeit goods, valued at $1.2 billion had they been real. Below are the most heavily faked product categories, based on the number the number of seizures in 2014.


Number of seizures

Percent of total

Apparel and accessories



Consumer electronics



Pharmaceuticals and personal care products



Handbags and wallets






Watches and jewelry



Optical media (CDs, DVDs)



Computers and accessories



Labels and tags






Source: US Department of Homeland Security/Customs and Border Protection

—Tod Marks

More tips to avoid trouble

  • Deal with known legitimate retailers or service providers.

  • Beware of prices that are well below the going rate.

  • Avoid no-name products. A manufacturer's name and address is no guarantee of safety, but at least it lets you contact the company to try to remedy problems.

  • Don't buy if the seller won't provide a receipt or if warranty data is missing.

  • Inspect labels and packaging. Missing or expired use-by dates, broken or missing safety seals, misspellings, or unfamiliar or flimsy packaging for big-name brands should send up a warning flag.

  • When buying auto parts, use a mechanic who's been reliable or a new one who comes highly recommended.



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