At the very least, counterfeit products are frauds – they are not from the manufacturer whose trademark appears on the product, so the consumer is cheated out of the quality that the brand represents. But in reality, the consumer has absolutely no idea what the contents and construction of a counterfeit product may be – it is a product of unknown origin, regardless of whether the consumer purchased from a known reseller. Because virtually any product a consumer can purchase can be counterfeited, consumers can be placed in great danger from unknowingly purchasing substandard products. A couple of recent events in the news highlight the extreme risks of counterfeit products.
In April 2018, the Los Angeles Police Department announced that it had raided sellers of supposedly discount brand name cosmetics, and seized $700,000 of counterfeits. Consumers had complained to the brand manufacturers that makeup products they purchased were causing rashes and bumps on their skin. The products were determined to be counterfeits that tested positive for high levels of bacteria and animal waste. This is undoubtedly because the counterfeits are not manufactured with any quality controls or regulatory oversight – they are the result of a black market, pirate operation. LAPD Detective Rick Ishitani was quoted in the press as saying, “Those feces will just basically somehow get mixed into the product they’re manufacturing in their garage or in their bathroom — wherever they’re manufacturing this stuff.” One of the brands asserted to be counterfeit was Kylie Cosmetics. Kylie Jenner’s sister, Kim Kardashian West, tweeted: “Counterfeit Kylie lip kits seized in LAPD raid test positive for feces. SO GROSS! Never buy counterfeit products!”
The risks to consumers of counterfeits unfortunately do not stop even there. An even more extreme case of product counterfeiting hit the press a few days later. Tragically, famed rock artist Prince died in April 2016. It was soon determined that he had died from an overdose of fentanyl, an extremely powerful and dangerous synthetic opioid. But in April 2018, local prosecutors announced that Prince had consumed the fentanyl by taking tainted counterfeit Vicodin, a brand name medication of AbbVie, Inc. There was no determination as to how Prince obtained the counterfeit Vicodin pharmaceuticals. “In all likelihood, Prince had no idea he was taking a counterfeit pill that could kill him. Others around Prince also likely did not know that the pills were counterfeit containing fentanyl,” Carver County, Minnesota Attorney Mark Metz was quoted as saying at a news conference.
Some believe that counterfeits can be identified by the price alone, and warn against buying brand name products at steep discounts. While an inexplicably low price is certainly a red flag of a potential counterfeit, in fact counterfeit products are often sold to consumers at prices very close to those of the brand name product. This is often because many intermediaries have handled the product, taking a profit with each transaction, in the course of a murky gray market distribution process.
The popularity of online sales make the risks even worse for consumers, as it is nearly impossible for the consumer to inspect the product before purchase and delivery, and it is often very difficult for consumers to determine who is actually selling the product online. For example, many popular online sellers act as marketplaces for innumerable third party sellers, and a purchaser cannot always determine which seller will actually deliver the product purchased.
If you are a consumer, you really need to exercise great caution when considering purchases of brand name products from sellers who are not in that manufacturer’s authorized distribution channels. It generally matters little whether the seller is known to the consumer – it only matters where the seller obtained the product.
If you are a brand name manufacturer or trademark holder who suspects that unauthorized parallel market sellers may be offering counterfeit products, you are well advised to promptly contact counsel well-versed in the issues and methods of enforcement of your intellectual property rights.