Modern Life

How to avoid buying phony products when you shop online

Learn how to protect yourself from counterfeit sellers and what to do if you end up with a fake.

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg — October 22, 2019

Counterfeit goods have long been associated with high-end fashion and luxury goods — think Ferragamo shoes and Louis Vuitton handbags. But increasingly, fakes are popping up in everything from soccer jerseys to books to bicycle helmets

In July, the US House of Representatives Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the growing problem of counterfeit goods. The big takeaway: US e-commerce sites lag behind their international peers in combating counterfeit goods, and consumers struggle to tell the difference between real products and fakes when shopping online.

According to the Better Business Bureau, one in four people has bought a product from the internet that turned out to be counterfeit — low-quality products that have been altered to look like a brand name item and often involve the unauthorized use of logos, labels, or trademarks.

Steve Baker, an international investigations specialist at the Better Business Bureau, says sales of everyday counterfeit goods like light bulbs, batteries, and printer cartridges have exploded over the last 10 years.

“With counterfeiting, a lot of people still think about fake handbags at a flea market,” Baker says. “But we’ve moved way past those days. Anything you can buy online is being counterfeited.”

AFP/Getty Images

A policeman walks across a pile of counterfeit medicines seized in Beijing. Fake medicines purchased online can contain too much, too little, or none of the active ingredient.

Fake products, real consequences

Not only do consumers lose money when they buy fake goods, legitimate companies lose sales. Counterfeiting and piracy cost the US economy between as much as $250 billion and 750,000 jobs annually, according to the International Trade Administration. “In some cases, counterfeiting can drive people out of business,” Baker says.

Counterfeits can also pose serious health and safety risks. Fake medicines purchased online, for example, can contain too much, too little, or none of the active ingredient. Counterfeit electronics or accessories such as phone chargers are often made with cheap materials and can lead to fires or cause electrical shocks.

Erik Stehl, a Houston-based repair technician at a major power tool company, regularly sees clients who’ve been duped into buying fake batteries for their tools. In many cases, the batteries just die, Stehl says. But in others, they break the tool. “The batteries are one-third the cost of the real thing, so you get what you pay for,” he says.

Major corporations and even academic institutions have ramped up efforts to take down counterfeiters and protect their brands and customers. In May, universities and professional sports leagues successfully sued Chinese counterfeiters for infringing on their trademarks by selling cheap counterfeit apparel.

Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations at Duke University, says the school is constantly monitoring trademark violations, and the problem is only getting worse. “Counterfeits take away from money we would otherwise use for financial aid and sports scholarships,” he says. “We take it seriously.”

Consumers also have to be vigilant. Spotting fake goods can be tricky, but there are steps you can take to protect yourself.

“A general rule of thumb when purchasing online is, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.”

—Andy Binder, VP & GM, office supplies solutions, HP Inc.

Know who you’re buying from

You’re more likely to end up with a counterfeit product if you buy from a third-party seller, or one other than the brand or authorized retailer, according to a recent US Government Accountability Office (GAO) study. The GAO found that 20 of the 47 brand-name products it purchased from third-party sellers, including chargers, shoes and travel mugs, were fakes. 

To help deal with counterfeiters, Amazon, which sees more than half of its unit sales from third-parties, recently launched a program called Project Zero. For registered users, Amazon scans over five billion daily listing update attempts, looking for suspected counterfeits, and lets the brands delete fake listings themselves.

If the price is right, you might be tempted to buy from a more obscure vendor, but that’s a mistake, says Yair Levy, professor of cybersecurity and information systems at Nova Southeastern University. Levy is also a member of the US Secret Service’s Miami Electronic Crimes Task Force.

“Shop from large vendors,” Levy says, “vendors you trust.” Especially for big ticket items like computers, Levy says to “buy from a reputable source, not just any website with a 1-800 number.”

Companies like HP often have a limited number of authorized partners that sell their products, says Andy Binder, HP vice president & general manager for office supplies solutions. Know who those partners are and buy from them. “A general rule of thumb when purchasing online is, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is,” Binder says.

Look beyond the price tag

Baker says to scrutinize product listings and the seller’s website. Counterfeiters often pair photos and descriptions of real items with imposter products, and if you buy in bulk, you might receive fake products along with real ones. Look for red flags such as language that doesn’t make sense, spelling and grammatical errors, and a lack of a physical address or phone number. 

Also, don’t make a purchase decision based solely on price. Many counterfeiters charge just below market price to trick consumers. “You may find something slightly cheaper, but you’re incredibly overpaying for the quality you’re getting,” says Baker.

Be skeptical of product reviews from buyers, since these too can  be fake.

Scammers will post glowing reviews to boost their search rankings and entice consumers. In his own online shopping, Baker found a product with hundreds of positive reviews. Only after digging into negative reviews did he learn it was counterfeit. Before you buy,  Baker advises, read the negative reviews first.

HP’s Binder says to beware of products that have no or few reviews. It’s a sign the company isn’t established and consumers should proceed with caution. One place consumers can turn is Fakespot, a website that allows consumers to enter product links and then uses artificial intelligence to analyze them for fake reviews.

Courtesy of HP

Counterfeit HP toner cartridges with fake packaging that were discovered during a raid.

To help identify counterfeits, HP crawls millions of online product listing pages daily. By looking at uses of the company’s copyrighted imagery, trademarks, and other unique identifiers, it can quickly identify sellers who are trying to deceive customers. HP will then report the misuse to the online marketplace, which will take it down. “If a seller has multiple infractions, they can be banned from the platforms all together,” Binder says. HP can also take legal action against parties for false advertising.

In July, HP seized counterfeit products worth $7.18 million during a 15-month operation across Southeast Asia, and HP’s efforts to identify counterfeit products can also lead to raids and seizures by law enforcement agencies. In another recent case, while monitoring online markets, HP identified a seller who appeared to be selling counterfeit HP toner in New York, Binder says.

HP contacted US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which placed a lookout on all imports associated with the seller. Not long after, CBP intercepted an import with hundreds of counterfeit HP toner cartridges. HP anti-counterfeiting investigators then worked with Homeland Security Investigations and the New York City Police Department to get a search warrant for the seller’s warehouse. A search revealed an additional 134 counterfeit HP toner cartridges, Binder says. The cartridges were seized and the sellers were arrested.

Binder says HP was involved in 600 raids last year, in which around $170 million worth of counterfeit toner products and components were confiscated.

“When we do take action, it’s for the benefit of everybody in the industry,” Binder says.

Pay attention to packaging

When you receive an item you’ve bought online, especially clothing, inspect it to make sure it’s authentic. Look at the details. Do the materials seem cheap and flimsy? Is the product the same size as the one you ordered? One woman who ordered a white wedding dress online received a neon green gown. Another ordered boots to go with her Halloween costume and was sent a pair that might fit a doll.

Items sold without packaging are often suspect. So is generic packaging, because brands typically print their logo on both their packaging and their product. Compare logos to the one on the company’s website to see if they match. Binder says consumers should compare the physical product with the online description as well.

Counterfeit ink and toner supplies are often sold in packaging that looks like a well-known brand’s. According to the Imaging Supplies Coalition (ISC), which represents the business interests of companies like HP, more than $3 billion is lost annually on counterfeit printer supplies and accessories. Consumers might think they are saving money, but fake ink and toner cartridges don’t last as long, can void your printer warranty and might be filled with harmful chemicals. There are ethical reasons to be wary, too: Product counterfeiters are also often involved in other illegal activities such as illegal gun sales or even human trafficking.

HP was one of the first tech companies to include security labels on its printer cartridges, a technology that’s helped to crack down on fakes. Made with advanced printing techniques, the labels function much like the security marks on currency. HP provides consumers with simple tests they can do at home to see if a product they’ve bought is authentic.


Counterfeits may come with a lower purchase price, but they may also be lower quality, costing you more in the long run.

Report fake goods

You did the best you could to avoid counterfeits, but you still got duped. Now what?

First, claim a refund. Contact the vendor, let them know you received a fake and ask for your money back. The vendor themselves may have been tricked, not realizing the item wasn’t legitimate. 

If the company denies selling a counterfeit, or doesn’t respond at all, escalate. If you purchased from a third-party seller on an online marketplace, report the incident to the seller. Baker says to report counterfeits to the Better Business Bureau as well.

If you’re denied a refund and you paid with a credit card, dispute the charge, and your credit card company will investigate. But don’t dawdle. Victims typically have 120 days from the day they receive a product or when they learn it’s counterfeit to report it.

You’ll also need proof that it’s a fake. To report a fake at HP, submit a counterfeit incident report, noting the site where you purchased the item is not an authorized seller. Take a screenshot of the website you bought from and a photo of the item you received.

File a complaint with your state consumer protection office and report online counterfeits to federal regulators at

Baker says that if law enforcement can identify the address or shipping payment information, they may be able to find the scammers and take action, especially if the goods are shipped from within the US. That’s why it’s best not to stay silent. 

“Complaining may help others avoid being ripped off,” he says.