Counterfeit tech gifts come with dangers


’Tis the season to get ripped off — and some of the merchandise most likely to be counterfeited might surprise some folks.

Electronic goods are making their way up the list.

“Smartphones and tablets are becoming hot properties, and mobile apps is a big one — that’s a growing counterfeit market,” said Joan Coughlin, spokeswoman for the Better Business Bureau, which recently released its annual list of the most-common counterfeit goods.

Counterfeit apps come in various levels, some as benign as having a mislabeled name for an actual app. Others are malicious and can have a name and application similar to an actual product but are designed to damage a device or steal financial information.

To avoid counterfeit apps, the best advice is to buy from a reputable app store. But even in those locations, some hidden malware programs intended to do harm can sneak in. In such cases, a common tip-off will be if the app asks for all contacts or credit-card numbers.

Although such technology has joined the list of frequent fakes, the most-popular counterfeit products typically include sports jerseys, personal-care products, shoes, toys and luxury goods, according to the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center.

But the recent additions to the list should be of particular concern, Coughlin said.

“This is the time of the year when holiday shoppers are looking for deals,” Coughlin said. “And that is a big opportunity for counterfeiters because they are conscious of trends. They tend to follow the market.”

During the holiday shopping season, counterfeit products flood the market — at stores, on street corners and online — according to law-enforcement officials. Exactly how much fake stuff is out there is difficult to gauge, but the FBI estimated a few years ago that U.S. companies lose as much as $250 billion annually because of counterfeit goods.

Some fake smartphones are sophisticated enough that it’s becoming harder for buyers to easily discern the real from the fake.

“Many fake phones may work in some form,” Coughlin said. “A fake tablet can turn on, but it will often have a blurry screen, and a number of the apps just won’t work. So the fakes really remain shoddy, and that means the key is to check the merchandise in person, especially electronics, and really put it through its paces before you buy.”

Law enforcement is on the case, particularly in the online arena. This month, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that it had joined forces with 10 foreign law-enforcement agencies to seize 706 Web domain names that had been set up to dupe consumers into buying counterfeit goods.

Even so, consumers should be especially wary of counterfeit tech.

“It’s a much higher consequence than a fake Coach bag,” Coughlin said. “Consumers are at risk, not only of buying shoddy merchandise, but, when buying online, of divulging personal financial information to thieves.”

The technology has provided a new twist, but the ways to avoid being scammed remain tried and true, said C. Matthew Curtin, founder of Interhack, a Columbus-based forensic-computing firm.

“The old adage caveat emptor is the most sage advice — buyer beware,” Curtin said. “There is no such thing as a free lunch. Do you really think that a guy on the street charging $25 for a Gucci watch is selling the real article? It retails for $1,000, so why would he charge so little unless it’s fake or stolen? Gucci isn’t selling them to Macy’s for $20 apiece, so how could the guy on the street? The same is true with any computer, phone or software.”

Bargain hunters are especially vulnerable, Curtin said, as scams typically crop up on “one day only” websites and through “phishing” emails, text messages or phone calls that claim to come from established retailers.

The tip-off that something is awry? If the message or call asks for credit-card or bank-account numbers or other confidential information.

“They’re becoming increasingly sophisticated and brazen,” Coughlin said. “They price products just below authentic counterparts — and that leads consumers to think they’ve found a better deal.

“It’s really important to research a merchant before a purchase,” she said. “The safest course is to buy from the manufacturer, rather than a third party, or from officially licensed sources.”