Q: Recently, I was a victim of counterfeit merchandise purchased on the Internet. How can I protect myself from this happening again?
A: The market for counterfeit luxury items is wide and deep, selling everything from jewelry and perfume to handbags and sunglasses. For bargain hunters looking for name-brand items at discount prices online, Better Business Bureau offers advice on avoiding Web-based rip-off schemes.
According to a report by the Department of Homeland Security, the total domestic value of merchandise seized during fiscal 2011 was $78.3 million. But those seized items would have had a value of $1.11 billion had they been legitimate. The category of "seized consumer safety" and "critical technology" goods rose in value by 41 percent compared to fiscal 2010, the report says.
Online classified sites like Craigslist or eBay are hot spots for counterfeit luxury item fraud online, and both offer "buyers beware" warnings. But vendors are now setting up their own websites to fool frugal and in-vogue shoppers.
Certainly, in a tight economy, consumers are always looking to save a dollar or two. However, too often, what looks to be a "great deal" is really a shoddy knock-off in disguise.
BBB offers the following advice for shopping safely online when looking for deals on designer goods, as well as tips on how to spot a fake:
Always deal with reputable businesses. The No. 1 way to avoid getting ripped off when buying luxury goods is to deal with reliable businesses. When in doubt, shoppers can contact the manufacturer and verify which vendors are authorized sellers. Consumers should also check out the business with BBB at www.bbb.org/search before making a purchasing decision.
If the price seems too good to be true, it probably is. One of the biggest red flags for knock-off merchandise is an unrealistic price. Extremely low prices are tempting, but not to be believed. Paying $100 for a $1,000 purse could result in the consumer receiving a poorly constructed and worthless fake.
Read between the lines. Some websites or online classified ads will go overboard in their description of the item to win the buyer's trust. Overuse of "genuine," "real" or "authentic" is a bad sign. Buyers also need to keep an eye out for sneaky phrases like "inspired by."
Check the merchandise. Considering that the name is a large part of the motivation for buying a luxury brand, many manufacturers spend considerable time and energy on crafting the physical label.
Counterfeiters aren't usually as meticulous. Shoppers should look for misspelled words and brand names, poorly sewn logos and labels, etc. Some luxury goods carry an "authenticity label" with a hologram or other security measure.
Consumers who have purchased counterfeit luxury goods should contact BBB and then easily file complaints online at www.bbb.org/complain. Consumers can also contact the Consumer Product Safety Commission at www.cpsc.gov and file a complaint.
Also visit www.bbb.org/news. To sign up to receive our scam alerts, visit BBB Scam Source at www.bbb.org/scam.
Get answers to your questions each Friday from Jim Winsett, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau Inc., which serves Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia. Submit questions to his attention by writing to Business Editor Dave Flessner, Chattanooga Times Free Press, P.O. Box 1447, Chattanooga, TN, 37401-1447, or by e-mailing him at dflessner@ timesfreepress.com