Securing Our Communities: Counterfeit Goods

Each week, the NTIC Cyber Center highlights a different social engineering scam impacting individuals and communities within the National Capital Region. We encourage everyone to share this information with friends, colleagues, and loved ones to help reduce their risk of becoming a victim of financial fraud and identity theft.

Counterfeit goods are fraudulent products that are similar or nearly identical to their legitimate counterparts and are typically sold for financial gain. While the sale of counterfeit goods is not a new practice, advances in technology and the popularity of e-commerce platforms have led to an increase in the prevalence of counterfeit goods distribution. Sellers of counterfeit goods may masquerade as legitimate distributors with positive seller account reviews designed to trick customers into thinking they are purchasing goods at low prices from legitimate sellers. This is especially prevalent with popular, hard-to-find, and expensive items such as jewelry and electronics, as well as items that suddenly come into high demand due to a disaster or crisis, such as fraudulent N95 respirators and surgical masks. Online retailer Amazon recently banned and removed over a million fraudulent product listings attempting to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic by advertising products claiming to cure or protect consumers from the virus.

Counterfeit goods can pose serious health risks to consumers as their manufacturers often do not maintain the same quality standards or obtain the appropriate safety certifications as legitimate manufacturers do. For example, counterfeit cosmetics may contain quantities of heavy metals that surpass government health guidelines. Even so-called “safety” products can cause harm to consumers, as evidenced by recent investigations conducted on products such as airplane travel safety harnesses and child car seats. It is important to note that counterfeit goods should not be confused with private labeling, a legitimate process of taking an existing item produced by a third-party manufacturer and rebranding or modifying it to sell under a different name.

To reduce and mitigate the risks of purchasing counterfeit goods, the NTIC Cyber Center provides the following tips to help you recognize the potential warning signs of this type of scam:

  • Some manufacturers have removed their products from certain e-commerce platforms due to the increased presence of counterfeits. Look at the legitimate manufacturer’s website or call the company directly to verify the marketplaces where the product is officially sold.

  • Scrutinize the seller and their online identity. Look into the reputation of the seller account and associated ratings and see how long they have been a merchant. Keep in mind that scammers can use fraudulent accounts to boost their reputation in a short amount of time.

  • Be skeptical of any prices that are too good to be true. Prices that are unusually low compared to those of other merchants could be an indicator of a potential scam.

  • Check to see if the seller is the one shipping the product or if another entity is doing it for them. Disparities in the product’s location and the shipper’s location may indicate suspicious activity.

  • Be sure to check the reviews prior to making a purchase and look to see if the photo in the listing matches the pictures in the review section. Counterfeiters can imitate jargon and spoof organizational logos used by legitimate distributers on their listings and products.

  • Only use payment platforms sanctioned by the e-commerce platform as they frequently provide protection for consumers who inadvertently purchase counterfeit products.

Report the sales of counterfeit goods to your local police department, offending e-commerce platform, and the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. For information specifically related to counterfeit respirators and masks, please visit the online resource provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention here.

The NTIC is governed by a privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties protection policy to promote conduct that complies with applicable federal, state, and local laws. The NTIC does not seek or retain any information about individuals or organizations solely on the basis of their religious, political or social views or activities; their participation in a particular noncriminal organization or lawful event; or their race, ethnicities, citizenships, places of origin, ages, disabilities, genders, or sexual orientations. No information is gathered or collected by the NTIC in violation of federal or state laws or regulations.