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Consummate Consumer

Counterfeit Goods That Trigger the 'False' Alarm

By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 4, 2005; Page C10

Shopping for a Gore-Tex jacket last November, Shane Gooding found several deals on eBay. But he grew concerned that some of the jackets might not have been the real thing.

"With knockoffs flooding the market from China and other countries, is there a way to verify whether the jacket or other products I'll buy are real?" asks Gooding, who lives in Springfield.

A pair of genuine London Fog jackets. Online buying has made it harder for consumers to spot fakes, which sometimes even show up on reputable sites. (Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

Tim Trainer says telling the difference isn't easy. "And once it's home, then it's too late if you bought a counterfeit," warns the president of the International AntiCounterfeiting Coalition, a D.C.-based nonprofit association that combats counterfeiting and piracy.

Product counterfeiting has grown into a worldwide phenomenon. Trainer says a conservative estimate, from the International Chamber of Commerce, is that product counterfeiters rake in $300 billion to $500 billion annually. Sixty to 70 percent of counterfeit goods seized by U.S. Customs come from China, says Trainer. Even major chains, which buy in bulk, get knockoffs mixed in with legitimate shipments, and they end up on store shelves.

Practically anything can be counterfeited today, and is: Rolex watches, and clothes and accessories from Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Kate Spade, Coach, Christian Dior and other high-end brands. But everyday items are counterfeited as well: electrical cords, standard AA batteries, surge protectors, pharmaceuticals, even pet flea products.

Soon after the comedy "Meet the Fockers" opened in theaters recently, unauthorized copies were on sale.

"The piracy rate for U.S.-released movies is 100 percent," says Jim Spertus, director of the Motion Picture Association of America's U.S. anti-piracy operation, which estimates the industry loses more than $3.5 billion a year in DVD and tape sales to counterfeiters.

What makes a knockoff illegal? Trainer says "looks-like-the-real-thing counterfeits" that use manufacturers' names or copyrighted elements is an infringement of trademark and copyright laws. Products whose designs are "inspired" by brand-name products are a murkier issue, but the law considers look-alike products that are likely to confuse consumers illegal. "We had this footwear maker who took 'Converse' and [transposed] the 'v' and 's' so it read 'Conserve,' " he says. "We said it was counterfeit because people didn't notice the difference."

How to avoid buying a counterfeit product? Price and vendor are the most reliable tip-offs.

"If you are talking about a Rolex watch, a Louis Vuitton bag or Oakley sunglasses, products which are pretty pricey," says Trainer, "the question is, did you buy it from a reputable vendor? If you bought it off the street, forget about it."

A new Gucci handbag for $100 really is too good to be true when the real thing costs $1,000, says Trainer. "A lot of this is really common-sense stuff. If it is discounted 70 percent, hello?"

But unless you know what a Rolex watch is supposed to look and feel like, you probably can't tell the difference. "If it's a nice Nike shirt or whatever, it may have the hangtag or the tag that says 'Genuine Nike.' The counterfeiters are so good today that it sometimes takes experts at the companies to tell if it is a counterfeit," Trainer says.

Counterfeits often have blurred or ripped labels; product names misspelled; contents, color, smell or packaging wrong. Trainer says he saw counterfeit Duracell batteries for sale at local supermarkets and drugstores recently. He turned the package over, he said, "and the word 'China' was misspelled."

Spertus says pirated movies are usually easy to recognize. Pirated DVDs are usually blue on the data side instead of gold or silver. The packaging is unprofessional, with imperfections in the artwork -- "things like spelling Tom Cruise's name 'Cruz' is common."

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