The 12 days of Counterfeit Christmas

By Stuart Fuller


“Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat” so says the old nursery rhyme.  However, gone are the days when shops started going overboard on Christmas straight after Halloween.  It seems that every year that passes, the pervasive influence of Black Friday, Cyber Monday and all those other created names for recession-fuelled binge spending.  Come early December though and the festive decorations replace the remnants of the sales.  Retailers will of course still count these events as part of their Christmas trading – shoppers alone in the UK will spend over £4.3 billion according to Experian, up by over 10% on the same period last year.

We all love a bargain, but to what lengths will we go to grab one?  Over £360 million will be spent on counterfeit goods in the UK this festive period, a number that continues to grow every year.  Whilst retailers try to balance the opportunity of grabbing every penny both in store and online, there comes significant risk to consumers in the form of scams, counterfeiters and every other cybercriminal who employ every trick in the book to grab a share of the multi-billion pound wallet.

With just a few weeks until Christmas is upon us once more, it is worth remembering a few sage points that will ensure that you stay healthy, wealthy and wise this festive season.  And what better way to present them than in the words of the world-famous festive song, The Twelve Days of Christmas.

On the First day of Christmas my true love sent to me a Partridge in a Pear Tree – In days gone by, the gift of the season was a partridge that could be kept and fed up for a year, then harvested for next Christmas.  Today the younger generation was something a little bit more modern.  The hottest gift of the 2015 season is the ‘hoverboard’.  Alas, as with all of the most popular boy’s toys, demand far outstrips supply.  This leads to shoppers taking risks as to where they buy them from.  Worringly, more than 15,000 unsafe hoverboards have already been seized at ports and airports around the UK.

Units imported from abroad that have unsafe plugs or substandard cabling have been responsible for house fires, including three in London alone in October.  Trading Standards officers have said that 88% of units seized were found to be defective.

A word of advice: Counterfeiting costs lives.  It’s not just hoverboards but medicines, makeup and motor vehicle parts that lead to millions of world-wide serious injuries and deaths every year.  The simple motto here is “If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.”

On the Second day of Christmas my true love sent to me Two Turtle Doves – Turtle or Tortoise shell products are banned in many countries including the US.  EBay have specific statements on their website about the illegalities in trading real turtle shell products due to their endangered species classification.  Interestingly, if an item is described as fake turtle shell then it can be sold on the online marketplace – a rare instance where the fake is better than the real thing – although the word ‘mock’ may be better used in these situation.

A word of advice: One of the most infringed brands in the world is Ugg, the Australian boots made with sheepskin (but not real wool inside surprisingly).  They have set up a specific website to educate consumers as to what the real thing looks like and providing a mechanism for consumers to report websites who appear to be selling counterfeits. The best form of defence for any brand is education.

On the Third day of Christmas my true love sent to me Three French Hens – The French have a global reputation for producing some of the most luxurious goods in the world.  Whether it be chocolate, perfume, wine, cheese or clothes, their brands are renowned as hallmarks of quality and distinction.  Alas, it is this aspiration and desirable desire to own such products that has led to an explosion in counterfeit items.  A simple internet search using a famous luxury brand, preceded by the words “cheap”, “discount” or “sale” will results in hundreds of websites that claim to be selling the real thing.  Most of these organisations do not sell their products for 50% (or more) off retail price – that would devalue their brand.  At best you would be buying a poor imitation, at worst you could be buying a product, such as fake wine or cheese that could cause damage to health as well as your wallet.

A word of advice: 3G printing is the latest threat to brands and their products.  Today, there are a number of visible clues that allow us to make easy decisions as to whether a product is counterfeit.  3D printing changes the whole dynamic.  It is estimated that the intellectual property losses by 2018 through 3D printing will amount to over $100 billion annually.

On the Fourth day of Christmas my true love sent to me Four Calling Birds – Last November Essex Police seized over £100,000 worth of fake mobile phones and accessories following a tip-off.  Over $100m worth of fake products were seized in 2013 by US customs.  The reason?  Because the products are relatively cheap to produce and the real products are relatively expensive.  In many instances, people buy fake items to “keep up with the Jones’s”.  If it looks like the real thing then they are happy.  Unfortunately, fake phones rarely work as they should and cheap components can lead to injury through battery fires.  Envy, one of the seven deadly sins, is a strong motivating factor.

A word of advice:  Don’t be fooled by a seller’s impressive Social Media followers, likes or tweets.  Just like everything else in the modern world, they can be bought too.  The current going rate is $18 per thousand likes for a Facebook page, or $20 for a five-star review on TripAdvisor.  The practice, christened by NetNames as Fliking has become big news in recent weeks after Amazon announced they would take legal action against over a thousand individuals who had offered to write five-star reviews in exchange for just $5.

On the Fifth day of Christmas my true love sent to me Five Gold Rings - Fake jewellery is huge business with an estimated $187m seized in the US alone in 2012, up by nearly 10% on 2011.  On face value a number of metals can be disguised as gold and passed off as the real thing to the unsuspecting eye both online and in physical market places.  Shakespeare passed off some of the best advice ever given in his play, The Merchant of Venice, when he told his audience that “All that glitters is not gold”.  A simple check it to hold the jewellery to a magnet.  Gold has no magnetic properties, whereas some of the cheap substitutes do.

A word of advice: Luxury goods, whether that is a gold Rolex or a pair of diamond-encrusted Uggs is one of the most impacted sectors from cybercrime.  Twelve percent of the EU customs seizures in 2012 were luxury branded goods.  Unfortunately, demand shows no signs of letting up, which means in factories around the world, production lines continue to make substandard products.  Whilst around 31% of purchasers of counterfeits didn’t know what they were buying, the fact that prices are often discounted so low is not a defence.

On the Sixth day of Christmas my true love sent to me Six Geese-a-Laying – You name it, it is sure to have been counterfeited but some of the more surprising items are staples items such as bread, flour and more commonly, eggs.  Whilst they first started appearing twenty years ago in China, it is only now that the danger of this counterfeit eggsample (and we aren’t even yoking here) is being seen in the western world.

A word of advice: Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to know what harmful substances are in the shells, so before you lay out your cash early, avoiding the mad Christmas scramble to poach some cheap eggs, be warned.  Last year there was a fake story that appeared in the US warning people of the dangers of fake turkeys.  Whether this was a ploy to stop people buying the birds, and thus saving their necks to live another day is still unsure.

On the Seventh day of Christmas my true love sent to me Seven Swans-a-Swimming – Want to stand out from the crowd this Christmas Day?  Well be careful about buying “exotic” meat from unusual sources.  Whilst many of us have started favouring Goose over Turkey for our Christmas dinner, a number of local newspapers are reporting an increase in Swan deaths which has led to speculation that people are hunting them for their meat.  In the United Kingdom, every swan is the property of the Crown, and it is thus illegal to buy it in this country.  However, it is legal to buy in the United States of America, meaning that some imports could make it into this country.  However, without any way of verifying where the meat has actually come from, your “exotic” dish may be something completely different.

A word of advice: Recent changes in food labelling legislation has made it clearer for consumers to understand what they are buying and from where, but meat bought through “illicit” channels rarely meets these regulations.  It is illegal to import or export food products from a number of countries, with heavy fines in place for those who transgress.  So be warned where you take your jar of Bovril!

On the Eighth day of Christmas my true love sent to me Eight Maids-a-Milking – Fancy a nice cheese board to go with your exotic meat on Christmas Day?  Surprisingly, fake cheese is becoming a growing problem for food standards authorities.  In a study carried out earlier this year by Trading Standards in the North West of England, 19 out of 20 samples taken from fast food restaurants were found to contain “analogue cheese” - an artificial cheesy substance that is much quicker and cheaper to produce than real cheese.  Whilst few of these pose a risk to health, it does once again question the fact as to whether we really know what goes into our food.  Last month, The Independent reported that fake goats’ cheese had been found for sale in supermarkets by the consumer group, Which?, after becoming “concerned” that a shortage of goats’ milk had not affected the amount of cheese on shop shelves. The watchdog found that in six cases, half or more of the product was sheep’s cheese. Brie-lliant research into a mature subject.

A word of advice: Fake food products account for around 15% of the counterfeit items seized in many global markets each year.  Cheese is often elaborately wrapped, with technology today making counterfeit packaging almost identical to the original.  Our instincts are never to question a product that appears to be in the original packaging but that is the key to the counterfeiters success.  But we should, especially if the selling source of the product is unusual.

On the Ninth day of Christmas my true love sent to me Nine Ladies Dancing – Christmas is the perfect time to put on the glad rags and head out into the bright lights of the city centre.  One dilemma that we face, whether male or female, is what to wear?  We all want to look good, but at what cost? Fake clothes, often passed off as branded items including real tags and labels are estimated to cost the manufacturers over £12bn per annum.  With just a tiny fraction of all counterfeits seized by officials, the vast majority ends up for sale on physical and online market places.  Whilst a small number of people will know exactly what they are buying, more often than not these items will be passed off as “discounted” genuine garments.  A simple search online for “cheap” or “discount” along with a brand name will reveal hundreds of websites, all claiming to be selling the real deal.  Many of these wont, as a large number of brands do not offer their products at sale prices unless it is through one of their own sales channels.  We all want to remember those Christmas parties for the right reasons, not for being shown up wearing inferior items.

A word of advice: One practice that we all indulge in from time to time is driving this issue.  Showrooming is now a way of life when we go shopping.  We go into a shop, see something we like and instead of reaching into our pockets for our wallets or purses, we grab our mobile phones and check how cheap the item our heart’s desire nearby or online.  Shops become simple showrooms, with the transactions often taking place thousands of miles away in server farms.

On the Tenth day of Christmas my true love sent to me Ten Lords-a-Leaping – What to buy the sports fan who has everything?  How about tickets to one of the most popular events in 2015 – The opening day of the test match at the home of cricket, Lords?  You will not be surprised to hear that tickets for event annually are often like gold dust, with prices on the resale websites hitting fove or six times face value.  Whilst that may seem the easy option, rather than trying your luck in the official ballot, how sure are you that come the day, the tickets you bought are actually genuine?  The beauty for the ticketing websites in using “print at home” technology is that they no long have to worry about distribution or postage.  Selling fake tickets is now as easy as printing multiple copies of a pdf and standing outside the venue reselling the same ticket time and time again, or listing them on a variety of websites.

A word of advice: Only buy from official sources or those that offer a guarantee that if a problem does occur, they will compensate you.  If you are unsure about a website, do a search on the Internet and see what others are saying about their reputation.  New legislation being introduced in the UK should give more protection to consumers buying secondary market tickets but even so, the best protection is to just be cautious and buy official.  We all want to see 1D play that last concert I know but is it worth the risk, disappointment and years of regret in using an unofficial source?

On the Eleventh day of Christmas my true love sent to me Eleven Pipers Piping - The figures associated with the trade in counterfeit tobacco products are simply staggering. Recent studies estimate that 11% of global cigarette sales are for fake products. That’s over 600 billion cigarettes a year worth an estimated $40bn which is equivalent to twice the entire GDP of Paraguay – one of the major contributors to trade in illicit tobacco products.  Fortunately, help is at hand in the form of the much talked-about e-cigarette, these electronic devices, that resemble real cigarettes, and deliver a glycerine/nicotine based solution into the lungs through a vapour rather than smoke. However there has also been significant online activity to divert traffic away from the top tobacco brands’ websites (offering e-cigarettes) and onto other independent sites. Independent websites are only one source of the problem; another rapidly growing area is marketplace sites and online trade boards where independent e-cigarette manufacturers offer up vast quantities at rock bottom prices for businesses and enterprising individuals to buy and resell. The proliferation of counterfeit e-cigarettes and liquid refills is not only a consumer health issue which poses a similar kind of threat as black market cigarettes, but it also damages the revenues and brands of the legitimate e-cigarette manufacturers, pushing prices up.

A word of advice: Smuggling is still an offence so don’t think that just because you bought genuine products overseas you are able to sell it on at a profit. Over €10 billion is lost annually in the EU alone in customs duties due to the illegal movement of tobacco. Customs officials take a dim view of this action, with 65% of the items seized in recent years being counterfeit.

On the Twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me Twelve Drummers Drumming – Looking at updating your music library before the Christmas period?  Be careful where you decide to grab your tunes from.  Downloading music from unauthorised sources is digital piracy and the penalties can be severe, ranging from sanctions placed on you from your ISP to large fines.  The Black Market information website, Havoscope, estimate the annual loss to the music industry due to piracy at $12.5bn. Not only will you be breaking the law if you download music from an unauthorised source, but you also risk infecting your computer with harmful malware.  That’s not a Christmas present you want to give to any one!

A word of advice: Digital Piracy continues to be a challenge for rights holders and consumers alike.  Whilst attitudes are certainly different to downloads than counterfeits, 22% of consumers feel it is justified if there is no access to the real product.  Piracy is not a victim-less crime.  Somewhere rights holders need to recoup their investments.