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The Smart Shopper’s Guide to Buying Quality Goods

Fake product trade has reached stunning proportions — here's how to dodge that

The holiday season is upon us. Millions of people around the country spend the month of December in search of thoughtful gifts for family, friends, coworkers, and charities.

It’s happy news for legitimate retailers — but it’s also a boon for counterfeiters. These criminals take consumers’ hard-earned money and provide fake, often dangerous, goods in return.

If you find you’ve unwittingly bought a counterfeit, you have recourse.

The problem is increasing exponentially. Not so long ago, counterfeiters traded mostly in faux luxury. A few of us may have bought a $40 luxury watch on a street corner, only to find it stopped keeping time within a day. Almost no one was fooled.

But the fake product trade has reached perilous proportions, nearly doubling in value since 2008. Global trade in fake goods is now estimated at nearly half a trillion dollars a year. That’s more than double the 2014 profits of the world’s top ten companies combined. From toothpaste to laundry detergent, no product is immune.

Inferior quality is just the beginning. Today’s fakes include holiday lights and electronics that overheat and cause house fires. Safety helmets that crack at the first fall off a misbehaving, knock-off hoverboard. Phony cosmetics that cause skin ailments, and pirated movies and games that infect computers with malware that aids identity theft.

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This holiday season, we all want to bring good cheer — not new hazards — into our homes. Fortunately, a few simple steps can help protect your family.

First, heed the age-old wisdom: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Hunt for great deals, but if the product seems outrageously underpriced, proceed with caution. You may want to visit the Global Intellectual Property Center’s page on “Dangerous Fakes” to see if the item is on the list of known counterfeits. When in doubt, walk away.

Also, be sure to enter personal and financial information ONLY on secure web pages. Look for “HTTPS://” in the URL line at the top of your browser. “S” stands for secure and most browsers will also display a lock symbol.

And check for clues you’re dealing with a reputable online retailer. Many will display certifications attesting to their safe handling of financial information and quality assurance processes. If you’re unsure about a website, verify with the certifying organization that these seals are valid and up to date.

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You can also look for applicable sales tax during your checkout. Underhanded retailers don’t collect these fees or report their transactions to the government — a good sign of bad intentions.

And beware when purchasing from abroad. You may not be getting the same safeguards you’re accustomed to with other purchases. Use only trusted vendors with a real physical address.

Finally, inspect the product upon receipt. Lack of labels and warranties, blank “use by” dates, missing seals or tampered packaging — these are all signs that the item is not authentic and may not be safe. And don’t think you can skip this step if you shop at brick-and-mortar stores. In a survey conducted by Gallup, 64 percent of counterfeit electrical goods are purchased at legitimate shops.

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If you find that you’ve unwittingly bought a counterfeit, you do have recourse. See if the retailer will allow you to return the item for a refund. If not, your bank or credit card may have fraud protections that apply. Most importantly, report your experience to the authorities using SaferProducts.gov. You’ll help improve enforcement and protect other consumers.

Fake goods are a serious problem. But with a little extra attention, consumers can upgrade their shopping habits and outsmart the counterfeiters. And that’s a gift that keeps on giving — helping to keep families safe this holiday season and throughout the New Year.

Kasie Brill is executive director of the Global Brand Council in Washington, D.C.

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