The shocking dangers of buying fakes

By John Drengenberg
February 16, 2017

Caution! Counterfeit.Footwear, handbags, accessories, apparel, electronics, home entertainment, you name it – no matter the product, the manufacture and sale of counterfeit goods (i.e., fakes) are global problems that directly impact legitimate producers and retailers in virtually every industry. While fully measuring the size of the counterfeit market due to the wide-ranging effects is difficult, the latest estimate from the International Trademark Association (INTA) notes the global impact of piracy and counterfeiting will hit $4.2 trillion (USD) by 2022.

While buying a “knockoff” product may not seem to present harm on the surface, a report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warns that purchasing counterfeit or pirated goods present “a significant economic threat that undermines innovation and hampers economic growth.”

Economic impact aside, when it comes to counterfeit electronic products and accessories, safety is a significant concern. We likely all have experienced scenarios where our phone charger (“adapter”) was left at home while traveling. Or, the charger was left behind in a hotel while on a business trip or vacation.

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The quick solution is to buy a replacement adapter at the first store, kiosk or street vendor, enabling you to charge your mobile phone when the battery drains. What could be the harm?

Fire, electric shock, injury and, at times, fatalities are just some of the risks in using a counterfeit product. Within the past few years, several highly publicized electrocution deaths have been linked to counterfeit iPhone adapters. For example, in 2013, a man from Thailand was found electrocuted holding his Apple iPhone, which also was plugged into a wall outlet. An investigation conducted by Thailand’s National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) later concluded that the adapter was not produced by the original manufacturer and was improperly shielded or grounded.

Similar concerns were reportedly identified by Australia’s Department of Fair Trade in an investigation concerning the death of a woman who was electrocuted as she talked on a mobile phone that was directly connected to an adapter plugged into the wall. It had not been certified to applicable safety standards.

An adapter, by design, is used to supply or convert power from an electrical outlet to the device being used. In the case of an Apple iPhone, a genuine Apple adapter safely takes input voltage ranging from 100 to 240 V AC and converts it to 5 V DC. So, regardless of where in the world it is used, the adapter will convert high-voltage electricity from an outlet into low-voltage that safely charges the iPhone.

The Need for Certification

The design of the adapter and the materials used in its construction are critical to it working safely. Reputable manufacturers and companies devote significant resources to make their adapters safe and subject them to rigorous safety and reliability testing.

In most cases, however, counterfeit electronic products are neither designed nor manufactured to meet industry safety standards. In fact, manufacturers who produce counterfeit products often cut corners on safety to offer a lower-priced item and expedite products to market, putting consumers’ lives at risk.

Our recently published research demonstrates the amount of risk when counterfeit adapters are used. In a controlled test program, 400 counterfeit iPhone adapters with unauthorized certification marks were subjected to two product certification tests – an electric strength test and a touch current test. The counterfeit adapters were obtained from multiple sources in eight different countries from around the world, including the United States, Canada, Colombia, China, Thailand and Australia.

The results were shocking, to say the least. Only three of the 400 samples passed the electric strength test – a 99 percent failure rate – and 12 of them were so poorly designed and constructed that they posed a risk of lethal electrocution.

How can you tell the difference when you have the adapter in-hand, ready to purchase? Some counterfeit adapters can closely resemble the genuine product but there often are indicators consumers can use to make sure what they purchase is the real deal and not a fake. This includes:

  • Watch out for weird English. You might not be able to detect that the amount of copper in the cord is insufficient for the current being carried, but you can spot misspelled words, missing punctuation and stilted, bad translations. Counterfeiters are not concerned at all about quality, and that sometimes shows up in language on the packaging.
  • No brand name? Steer clear. Avoid products with minimal packaging, no branding and no documentation. Responsible manufacturers want to build trust and attach that trust to their brand. A barrel of $1 cords with no labels is a flashing warning sign.
  • Purchase from a reputable store. If you shop at retailers you know and trust, you are much less likely to come home with a knock-off product. The buyers for big chains are careful about sourcing and, while not perfect, they generally do quality checks before retailing a product.
  • Keep an eye on price. Genuine brand name adapters retail for approximately $19 (USD). An unusually low price for an adapter is a classic indicator.

Continued aggressive efforts by manufacturers and law enforcement authorities to slow the global trafficking of counterfeit products are having an impact, but retailers and consumers also have an important role. By being more visually aware of products sold and purchased, retailers and consumers can help reduce counterfeits and prevent unsafe products from reaching an electrical outlet.

The Author

John Drengenberg

John Drengenberg is Consumer Safety Director at UL (Underwriters Laboratories), an independent safety science company. John’s primary role at UL is focused on heightened consumer awareness of safety issues and of UL’s role in consumer safety. He has served on the board of the International Consumer Product Health and Safety Organization (ICPHSO), co-chaired the Chicago Consumer Sounding Board and was chairman of the UL Consumer Advisory Council. John also serves as UL’s spokesman and has been quoted in numerous newspaper and magazine articles as well as appearing on many radio and television programs. Mr. Drengenberg holds a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Wisconsin and a master’s degree in management from Northwestern University. He is also a registered professional engineer in the state of Illinois.

Warning & Disclaimer: The pages, articles and comments on IPWatchdog.com do not constitute legal advice, nor do they create any attorney-client relationship. The articles published express the personal opinion and views of the author and should not be attributed to the author’s employer, clients or the sponsors of IPWatchdog.com. Read more.

Discuss this

There are currently 2 Comments comments.

  1. Robert M. February 16, 2017 1:45 pm

    Brand name, reliable, Qualcomm Quick Charge certified chargers are available for less than $15. You just have to buy a brand such as Anker or Aukey.

  2. Inventor Woes February 16, 2017 9:34 pm

    I wonder how much the counterfeit news has damaged the economy.