JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – An epidemic of knock-off, counterfeit items is putting your family at risk this holiday season.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers say they’re seeing a big problem with people buying and selling fraudulent items that can catch fire or make you sick.
Tens of thousands of black market items are confiscated in the Jacksonville area. And across the country, Customs agents are seizing more than $1 billion worth of illegal and potentially dangerous items a year.
For the first time, federal investigators is giving only News4Jax unprecedented access inside their warehouse and vaults, as they fight the growing problem.
Fakes for sale
Name brands like Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Apple and Yeti may be on the top of your holiday wish list. They’re hot ticket items with hefty price tags. More and more people this year will turn to the Internet to buy those must-have gifts.
The deals are just a few clicks away, but are you getting what you’ve bargained for?
U.S. Customs officers say knock-offs are showing up everywhere – and you won’t believe how many people are getting duped!
“Right now the most popular items are the Yeti cups,” said Customs Officer Ben Wilkerson, who’s based in the Jacksonville office.
The danger is the cup could be made with hazardous materials such as lead. A 30-ounce tumbler typically retails for $40, but agents say the fakes are being sold online for between $12 and $13.
A hidden danger may also exist with knock-off makeup.
“We don't know what is in this powder. We can't let the consumer have this, because it is something that could potentially do damage to them,” he explained.
Wilkerson shows the I-TEAM a sample of even more items the feds have seized coming into North Florida – items like electronics and jewelry.
“If it was legit, it would be $15,000 approximately,” Wilkerson about a confiscated counterfeit Cartier bracelet.
He says the buyer likely paid around $300 for the look-alike.
“That should be a huge red flag,” he said.
It’s not a victimless crime. Police say consumers are paying good money for products that might not work – or even worse – could cause serious problems.
Phony phones are known to catch fire because the batteries and wiring aren’t up to safety standards.
“The front screens to these iPhones here, they could set your phone on fire because they don't have the proper shielding,” Wilkerson showed us.
The list continues. Bogus e-cigarettes could explode in your face. Knock-off LED lights, even labeled with a fake UL trademark, could burn your house down.
“And those wires may not have any shielding on them whatsoever. So when it warms up, they could ignite,” Wilkerson warned.
He shows us another popular purchase: contact lenses that could damage your eyes.
“The other big-ticket items here are contact lenses that according to the FDA could stick to your eye, because these are not made to the same quality as this trademark holder would have you expect,” explained Wilkerson.
Customs cracking down on counterfeits
Customs officers across the country are cracking down – intercepting shipments from China, India and Turkey. They say most were ordered on the Internet – and shipped through carriers like USPS, UPS, DHL and FedEx.
“Holidays are our busy time,” Wilkerson said. “For sure.”
The bigger items come through local seaports, and they’re taken to a giant warehouse – something the public’s never seen until now.
Customs agents have caught counterfeit computers, carnival rides, car parts – even toilets. They’re all illegal because they’re either branded with real companies’ names and logos or the manufacturers lied about the safety standards.
Federal officers have made arrests and sent some people to prison for the crimes, and continue to do everything they can to shut the fraudulent operations down.
“They don’t care,” Wilkerson said. “They are in it for the buck. It will be sent letters. They will actually have the Chinese government go to their factories and try to shut them down and they will pop up somewhere else.”
Amazon is starting to sue people that are selling illegal goods through its website, and so are the major manufacturers. They’re working closely with Customs, but officers say counterfeiting is so rampant that no one can keep up.
If you have a suspicion of, or information regarding suspected fraud or illegal trade activity, you are asked to contact U.S. Customs and Border Protection through the e-Allegations website or by calling (800) BE-ALERT.
Innocent victims of knock-offs
Justin Orantes is the Founder and CEO of Brandish, a Jacksonville-based company that helps businesses across the country promote and protect their products -- specifically on Amazon.com.
One focus for Brandish is fighting counterfeits.
“It's really an epidemic today,” he said. “It really is.”
But even Orantes himself isn’t immune to counterfeits. He ordered Adobe Photoshop computer software on Amazon in November -- from a vendor claiming to be an authorized reseller. What he got was less than authentic.
“We received it and obviously looks like a Chinese counterfeit,” he said. “Which is very unfortunate.”
Orantes points to misspellings on the box. He says he reported the vendor to Adobe and Amazon. Both companies are looking into the matter.
Investigators say some people, just like Orantes, order the fraudulent items as an honest mistake. But a lot of other people in our area are buying them in bulk and trying to sell them as the real thing to unsuspecting customers. Officers say it’s happening at mall kiosks, flea markets and gas stations.
Avoid the fakes
- Know what the genuine article looks like: The manufacturer’s website is a good source of information. Check the quality of the workmanship, the material the product is made from and how the item is constructed.
- Review labels and packaging: Look for missing product information, broken safety seals, misspellings, and strange packaging. Any of these could indicate a fake.
- Check the price: If the price on brand names is significantly lower than retail, be careful. For example, officers say Rolex will never sell a watch for $150, and Yeti won’t sell their Ramblers in the $10 price range.
- Look at the ratings for online sellers: If they’re bad, or they don’t have any reviews, stay away.
- Buy from reputable retailers: Many legitimate companies have lists of authorized resellers on their websites.
- Know commonly counterfeited items: Some of the most popular counterfeit products are pharmaceuticals, sports jerseys, personal care products, shoes, toys, headphones, luxury goods, and electronics.
- Be wary of American-made items sold by third-party retailers overseas: If it takes a long time for delivery, that's a red flag. For example, an authentic Apple iPhone won't come from overseas, and it won't take a month to be delivered.
- Trust your gut: If the price tag is too low, it's probably a phony.
Suspected phony products being sold in local stores
It took just seconds to find suspected counterfeit items online, as well as countless phony products that are bought and sold right here in north Florida.
The I-TEAM went undercover at local shopping centers Friday, finding vendors selling items they claim are brand name for a fraction of the retail price, as well as items that officials say are likely frauds.
"I am very confident that these are fake," said Officer Candido Higuera, of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The people selling the items didn't have answers about why the the prices were marked down so much, or where the products came from.
"I'm not too sure where he gets them from, to be honest," said one vendor at a Jacksonville flea market.
Special Agent Phillip Reynolds, with Homeland Security Investigations -- a federal agency that partners with Customs to crack down on counterfeits -- says these vendors know they are selling illegal items.
"We regularly go to flea markets and routinely make seizures. We've made arrests at flea markets. It's very common," Reynolds said.
According to Reynolds, an Oceanway man was recently sent to federal prison for 18 months for selling fake phone accessories as the real thing, and a judge ordered him to pay more than $70,000 in restitution to Apple.
Investigators say purchasing potential knock-offs is not worth the risk.
"I would be concerned. I would be, like, 'Geez, am I getting something that would ultimately hurt my children?'" Higuera said.
2015 examples of real vs. fake provided by Consumer Reports
Consumer Reports says many consumer know to look for the UL label, which is a safety seal the independent Underwriters Laboratories puts on more than 22 billion products every year. Counterfeiters will create fake UL labels on low-cost items, like small electronics and accessories.
The pictured fake label was found on thousands of fake toasters. Note the misspelling of year in "ONE YEAN WARRANTY."
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said that counterfeit airbags are sold as replacement parts for vehicles that have been in a crash. In this 2015 example, they look almost identical to original equipment. But NHTSA testing found that fakes consistently malfunctioned. Some didn’t deploy, and others expelled metal shrapnel during deployment.
The pictured fake airbag came from China and was sold on eBay for about a year.
Consumer Reports wants to point out the differences in the fake smartphone battery versus the real one. The fake Samsung battery is missing the Samsung logo and a "+" and "-" icon.
Also, the watt-hours value and battery capacity are wrong.
In this example of fake Botox, the vial is missing the lot number and the carton doesn't have any entries next to "LOT: MFG: EXP." The outer carton and vial show the active ingredient as “botulinum toxin type A” instead of “onabotulinumtoxinA.”