How to spot counterfeits while shopping online for gifts

Dec. 9, 2021
By Hannah Rhodes, Consumer Watchdog Associate

As the holidays draw near, and supply chain disruptions remain a common news story, many of us may worry about ordering gifts as quickly as possible. Most of us have experienced fast delivery when choosing to shop online, but when shopping, it’s important to be on the lookout for counterfeit products.

Two weeks ago, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials said that between Oct. 1, 2020, and July 30, 2021, they made 22,849 seizures –  spanning a variety of counterfeit products – worth $2.5 billion. CBP officials at Los Angeles/ Long Beach Seaport reported during Fiscal Year 2021 – Oct. 1, 2020 to Sept. 30, 2021 – that they seized more than $760 million in counterfeit and other prohibited goods. Items seized ranged from counterfeit luxury items to counterfeit pharmaceuticals.

It can be extremely alarming to realize that products that are supposed to undergo strict safety testing or that we know will be used around the body are counterfeit. While not every counterfeit product is dangerous, there is an increased chance of toxic chemicals and other hazards when items are not tested for safety. 

Being alert when shopping online is the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones from unsafe products. If you’ve looked high and low for an item that’s sold out, you can’t necessarily trust what pops up online. A great deal isn’t always the safest deal. 

Here are some tips about what to look for:

Clues within the website listing that can tell you a lot. When looking at a product’s description, watch out for misspellings or mislabelings. Website listings with low-quality pictures of products can also indicate a counterfeit. 

Age recommendations. When shopping for children, age recommendations for toys and other children’s products can be listed differently throughout a website listing. The age in the title may not be the same as the manufacturer's recommended age. If there isn’t a clear age range, it’s best to avoid buying the item. 

Seller information. When shopping on websites that host third-party sellers, you can access the seller’s information:

Clicking on the seller’s information can tell you what other items they sell, where the business is located and feedback on its products. If they sell a hodgepodge of other products in addition to what you’re searching for, it may not be a reputable seller. 

What the seller has to say. If you have questions about the authenticity of the product, you can reach out to the seller with questions. If they don’t respond, it’s a good indicator the listing was for a counterfeit product, or that you just may not want to do business with them. 

Suspiciously low prices. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce (USCC) and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) caution consumers to watch out for unusually cheap products compared to other items in the same category. When using a website that has third-party sellers, comparing listings for similar toys can be a good way to identify what the average price should be. Low prices don’t necessarily equal a good deal.

Where else the seller lists products. Do an internet search on the seller. If the seller has a website, check it out. You can also see if a seller has listings on other websites that have third-party sellers and compare the listings to see any discernible differences. 

Social media posts that are suspicious. Consumers should be wary of posts or targeted ad campaigns on social media. A report by the United States Trade Representative (USTR) says that posts and ad campaigns can be a “fast, easy, inexpensive and common tactic” that are used to fool customers into buying counterfeit and pirated products. 

Reviews that aren’t trustworthy. PIRG Education Fund lists tips on the best way to differentiate between fake and real reviews. 

Safety is key.  If a product will be used in or around the body — medicines, cosmetics, baby products — it’s best to shop at a brick-and-mortar store or the company’s website. Not every counterfeit is necessarily dangerous, but it’s important to be especially cautious about products that could have heartbreaking consequences. 

Other tips:

If you buy the product, take a look at the packaging. The USCC and CPSC recommend scrutinizing the labels, packaging and contents. If the packaging has anything suspicious, such as a broken safety seal, it could be a counterfeit product. While a counterfeit may be difficult to spot online, there could be differences in quality that are more visible when you get the product in the mail. 

Report any bad experiences. If you believe you’ve purchased a counterfeit or knockoff product, you can report it to www.saferproducts.gov or call the CPSC at 800-638-2772. 

Help out loved ones. If family and friends who are not as tech-savvy plan to shop online for holiday gifts, teach them how to identify listings that could be counterfeit. Go through listings together and show them what to look for to identify a counterfeit.