How to Spot China Fakes

International IP litigator

Got a call the other day from a reporter trying to track down whether “half” of all of a particular product sold in the United States are faked in China. In fairness to this reporter, I am not going to mention the particular product until his story runs, but I will say it is a product I know very well. My first reaction was that this was not possible because I had never seen a fake in a legitimate US store and there is no way anything close to half of this product could be sold on the streets and back alleys.

But the reporter then told me how a massive shipment of fakes had recently been seized and their quality was nearly perfect, right down to the holograms. Short of deconstructing the product and analyzing its materials, there would have been no way to know.

We then talked about how two of the leading companies in this industry have stellar reputations for fighting fakes and how they are always touting their prowess in this. They certainly convey that fakes are incredibly rare and easy to spot. Neither of these companies would talk to this reporter and since he is from an internationally renowned newspaper, we both wondered whether this failure was telling.

I mentioned how I have always been concerned about fakes and bad product and how because of that I almost never buy generics. I talked of how there had just been some problems in the United States with spices from China contaminated with salmonella. I said that I had heard someone from McCormick Spices talk about how it ensures food safety from farm to store and from that moment on I had switched to buying only McCormick spices. Of course it is possible this person was not telling the truth or that their methods are not really so state of the art and I simply do not know any better, but I doubt it. I generally believe companies with a strong brand usually will do whatever they can to protect that brand.

How can I be certain the McCormick spices I buy on the shelf at my local grocery store are even really McCormick’s? I can’t, but again, I can play the odds.If I buy from a reputable grocery store, the odds are far better. What else can we do?

I remember a couple years ago being at the Dalian airport with a stuffy nose. To avoid a potential headache from taking off and landing, I purchased a decongestant. The store in the airport had a nice array of American-branded decongestants, but their prices seemed just a bit too low (I think maybe 50 cents for a package that in the US would cost around four dollars). I nonetheless purchased a box and then I examined everything to determine whether it was the real-deal or not. The box struck me as a bit flimsy, but I attributed that to the China market. The pills themselves looked and smelled absolutely perfect.

I then started reading the instructions, which were in both English and Chinese (which made sense to me). It took a while, but by the time I had finished reading the instructions, I had found a number of typographical and grammatical errors. These errors caused me to conclude I had purchased a fake and, rather than risk ingesting something of questionable provenance, I threw everything away and boarded my plan with my stuffy nose intact.

I have Chinese lawyer friends who tell me they will no longer pay big money for Baijou anywhere in China (no matter how high end the brand or the store) because they believe half or more are not the real thing. China recently had a problem with fake green peas. In 2006, I did a post on fake law firms in China. I still occasionally hear of foreign companies getting duped in China by people falsely claiming to be Chinese lawyers.

How bad is the problem of fakes? In China? In the United States? In Europe? What about safety? What can we do to spot the fakes?

11 responses to “How to Spot China Fakes”

  1. I think its all about domain knowledge.
    If you know a product well, you can tell if its fake or not. Typos and packaging can give you some indication. However, if a pharmaceutical is made by a JV, its not unreasonable to assume that their Marketing and product packaging departments are not at international standards.
    Here is a funny story. I sometimes go to a bar where there are girls who…work…at the bar. I go there because my customers used to go there. And the beer is 10 kuai. But anyway… Many of the bar-girls have iPhones, which customers bought for them. I used to be a Product Manager for a mobile software company…and in general I’m sort of a geek. I know about the specifications of most smart-phones on the market. iPhone have capacitive technology glass screens, but all the knock-offs have resistive touch technology with plastic screen that give a little when pressed. However, the bar-girls all assumed those phones are fake; they would not believe a customer would buy them a real iPhone.

  2. As far as ability to detect fakes, it mainly depends on knowledge of the product. Most US trademark holders that have risk of counterfeiting, register their mark with US customs, if customs inspects a shipment and
    notices a mark they check their database and contact the record holder to verify if its legitimate.
    Counterfeiting of fashion items is down because of the weak US economy.
    Domestic consumption in China is up, so many
    counterfeit factories have converted to producing for the domestic markets and don’t export.
    China’s heyday of counterfeiting is over.

  3. Been buying a few dodgy Rolexes as gifts have we Dan on your China trips? Dont worry we won’t tell. Someones got to keep the PSB employed. Spotting them is easy, don’t be niaeve. No-one from authentic LV, Cartier or Rolex approaches you in the street and says “Psst! Copy watch”? People know full well what they are buying.

  4. The problem of fakes is so bad that there are even fake lawyers pretending to blog…
    …and fake commenters pretending to comment.
    …and fake readers pretending to read.

  5. If a product comes off the same production line as the “genuine” product then is it a fake, or just unauthorized?
    A few years ago I was trying to buy a shipment of networking equipment (made by an MNC we all know) from one of their Chinese distributors. After a couple of meetings discussing prices the distributor gave me a long list of products and said all of these could be purchased at a massive discount, but if there was any problem we couldn’t go to the MNC directly. Instead just tell the distributor and they would replace it.
    It turns out the Chinese suppliers were making extra product and then feeding it into the same distribution channels. I didn’t buy any as my customer was in the U.S.
    I suspect a lot of branded products sold in China are “unauthorized”, are they fake?

  6. What’s the best way? You already mentioned it, Dan. If there are language errors, it’s fake. If there are any errors in printing, coloring, silk-screening, etc.; it’s fake. Real products never have errors.
    In China, you need friends who really understand the markets. These experts can help you navigate through the fakes. Case in point: I bought a Columbia jacket from a major shopping outlet, and thought it was real, but learned the truth after asking an outfitter friend of mine. He pointed out the stitching, sealing, and fabric differences.
    My point here is that if you want to find the fakes, ask your Chinese friends. They probably already know how to tell.

  7. I suspect a lot of branded products sold in China are “unauthorized”, are they fake?
    If they are not authorized by the brand owner they are considered counterfeit. They can be physically the exact same product but may not have a warranty. Depending on the type of product it may matter.
    Its easy to blame the Chinese for fakes but most counterfeit production in China is initiated by foreigners.

  8. Often the most effective way to combat fakes/counterfeiting is to employ overseas investigators. Many of the high level counterfeting operations have ties which would require paying bribes to alleviate the problem, this is illegal by US laws.
    More often the legal counsel of the brand holder will drain their clients funds with little or no recourse.
    So in effect the foreigner initiated the counterfeiting. Legal counsel pocketed all the
    clients funds for anti-counterfeiting.
    Bottom line, as always..the lawyers won.

  9. Great article. Personally, I buy “fake” stuff (shoes, etc) on Taobao frequently that’s indistinguishable from the legit items. Suits me just fine as long as I’m paying 1/5th of the price. When you get into things like baby formula or medicine though, that’s what it becomes a serious concern.
    By the way, have you noticed this?
    This site has been copying and pasting all of the articles from Chengdu Living recently and I notice they’re doing the same to you guys. 🙁

  10. I attended a briefing by a major pharma company at which their head of security candidly admitted that they themslves often could not tell the difference between real and fake versions of their pills. They have set up two forensic labs, one of which is in HK, in which they have to analyse the chemical components by HPLC to tell whether the product in question is fake. He said most of the fakes come from China, and while their appearance is often almost a perfect replica, most contain the wrong dose, or in some cases the wrong drug.

  11. There are many grades of fakes from AAA (generally when manufacturers make the real product and some falls off the back of the truck. They are real products but sold for lots less because these companies don’t have shipping/marketing/middleman costs to pay.)
    Then there’s ‘A’ quality which is still very high and would take some skilled eyes to tell apart. Product would look and feel the exact same (using same materials). Generally the products parts are made in China and the end product produced somewhere else. These counter fitters get the parts from Around China and assemble themselves. So the product has the same materials but can be told apart because of the assembly method (for clothes it’s the stitching or some unique hard to get part that was reassembled by themselves).
    Generally unless you have lived in China for a while you will not know where to get AAA or even A quality. Generally this stuff is sold as the real deal even though it is fake.
    Don’t kid yourself… not all fakes are noticeable.
    Grading goes to as low a a C from what I’ve heard and generally these are well known fakes sold to foreigners in Sanlitun (Columbian jackets, rolex, sunglasses, shirts, ipods, etc).
    Unless you know the people in the stores there’s a good chance you will never know what you bought. Yes lots of fakes make it into the EU, US, etc. Do you really believe all the Chinese walking around Vancouver have real LV bags?
    There is no limits as to what is fake. I even found fake Canadian cigarettes (obviously this is only sold to Canada and not consumed in China).

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