The worldwide problem of cheap counterfeit products that only look like the real thing has surfaced in the Washington area, just as shoppers rush to do much of their holiday buying.
In Montgomery County this week, consumer officials said they have documented three incidents in which consumers were approached by people offering to sell them expensive Omega and Seiko watches at bargain prices. Three consumers paid $35 to $50 each for watches stamped with the brand name Omega or Seiko. When the watches were appraised, however, they were found to be counterfeit products worth only $10 to $12 each.
"People are very vulnerable at this time of year," said Susan Cohen, the consumer investigator handling the cases. "They are hurried, they have other things on their mind, and they are so accustomed to discount ads and street vendor sales that it doesn't seem unusual to them to be approached by someone offering brand name watches at discount prices."
Here is how it can happen, said Jean Edwards, who lives near Rockville and bought two fake Omega watches:
"It was early October and I was in a frantic hurry. I had parked my car in the parking lot in the Aspen Hills Shopping Center, where there is a K mart store, and I was dashing in to get a birthday present for my son. Suddenly, a young woman stepped in front of me. When she got out of the way, this man was there with a watch. He was blond with blue eyes and he looked like a college kid -- not a sleazy type who would pawn watches.
"He offered me this Omega. He said it was worth $1,000 but that he would sell it to me for $250. He said it was excess inventory from Black Starr & Frost and that he was selling it to make some money for a weekend in Ocean City."
Edwards said she does not know much about the value of watches, but this one was attractive and she liked it. When the man dropped the price, she made an offer and they bargained briefly. In the end she paid $35 for the woman's watch and $35 for a companion man's watch that he offered.
"I would have paid that much for a costume jewelry watch, so I didn't feel like I was being ripped off," Edwards said.
But after she had time to think, she called Black Starr & Frost and found that one of their Omega watches sells for $1,000. "At that point, I didn't know what I had -- but I knew I didn't want to be involved with stolen goods, so I turned them over to the Office of Consumer Affairs," Edwards said.
Cohen examined the watches, which were stamped with the Omega name, and concluded that the gold color was too brassy and that the diamonds lacked sparkle. Professional appraisers confirmed her suspicions. "The watches were counterfeit and . . . they were worth about $10 each," Cohen said.
In the other cases, Cohen sent the watches to the manufacturers for their opinions. Seiko and Omega examined the watches, she said, and they "found they were counterfeit and worth $12 or less."
Meanwhile, reports of other approaches by a man offering bargain watch deals still filter into the consumer office. "That tells us that the vendors are succeeding or they wouldn't still be around," Cohen said. She suggested two ways that shoppers can protect themselves:
* Remember that you are more likely to get a bogus product when you buy from an unknown vendor who approaches you on the street, sells from a vehicle or a stand, or comes to your door.
* If you do buy from a vendor, examine the merchandise first. You may be able to spot a counterfeit product by poor workmanship, uneven engraving and discolored, smeared packaging.