Jeff Gelles: Tips for avoiding being taken by Internet counterfeiters

A fake Tiffany & Co. website (left) vs. the real deal. Mangled English phrases are often a giveaway.

Knockoff football jerseys, fake medicines, counterfeit electronics. U.S. and foreign investigators have seen it all, and they chase the thieves as aggressively as possible - most recently through the Cyber Monday seizure of more than 100 U.S. websites peddling consumer goods that aren't what they claim to be. Since 2010, they've shut down more than 1,600.

Online or off, intellectual property theft is a massive worldwide problem that threatens even national defense - count the U.S. Navy among its victims - and public health. In an October sweep, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents joined with the Food and Drug Administration to stop sales at 686 U.S. websites accused of hawking counterfeit drugs, not only fake Viagra but bogus versions of potentially lifesaving medicines.

The trouble is, it's also a cat-and-mouse game with the wiliest kinds of mice. They're not scurrying away. They're always coming up with new tricks and places to hide.

If you think you're immune, consider the vast reach of counterfeiting. It's a problem that costs U.S. businesses an estimated $200 billion a year in lost sales, along with the jobs those sales would support. It also poses risks far beyond economic harm.

In February, a California businessman went to prison for conspiring to sell counterfeit integrated circuits - tagged with falsified trademarks from prominent manufacturers, and sometimes labeled "military grade" - to 420 purchasers here and abroad from 2007 to 2009. The Navy was among those duped.

So what can an ordinary consumer do to avoid falling victim? Some suggestions:

Beware of copycat sites. Look-alike sites have been a problem since the dawn of the Web. Some have simply capitalized on consumers' spelling or typing errors to snag a share of legitimate sales. Others are much more sinister.

In July's Project Copy Cat, ICE and the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center seized 70 sites that so closely mimicked their targets even an eagle-eyed consumer might miss the trickery. Among the victimized sites: Rosetta Stone, Tiffany, and ErgoBaby.

As the counterfeiters have grown more sophisticated, so have their tactics, including copying the look and feel of trusted websites as well as logos.

To avoid such sites, make sure you're going exactly where you intend by typing a trustworthy Web address or visiting sites via a reliable referrer rather than a broad search.

Consumer Reports, for example, leads shoppers to lesser-known sites for electronics or appliances rated by its website. Spokesman Douglas Love says the nonprofit product-tester uses an outside company,, to direct consumers, relying on PriceGrabber to vet sites for reliability.

If a customer reports a problem, the policy is "one strike and you're out," Love says. "There is a degree of community policing of these sites."

Know your merchandise. If you see a team jersey selling for $29 on a suspect site, and you know you'd pay $100 to $200 on a legitimate site, you probably know what you're dealing with. The same holds true for any product.

Yes, you can get deep discounts, especially on items like last year's electronics. But the phrase "too good to be true" means something worth remembering.

Is that deal for Lipitor really a bargain? Justin Cole, a spokesman for the intellectual property center, says customers who bought drugs from the sites seized last month sometimes got drugs with no active ingredient, and sometimes got drugs with 10 times the proper dosage. "You just don't know what you're putting in your body," he says.

Watch for red flags. Some common ones showed up repeatedly on some of the sites shut down Monday, including mangled English phrases such as this, from one site's FAQs: "How long will be the parcel arrived our country?"

Other flags include website names that don't match the Web addresses, and faked logos suggesting a site is secure. For instance, one site seized Monday bore logos for both the Better Business Bureau and McAfee Secure.

On a legitimate site, both those logos would have been hyperlinked to the organization behind it, and the McAfee logo would have the current day after the words "tested daily." On the counterfeiter's site, neither was a live link, and the logo bore an August date.


Contact Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or