HOUSTON – Consumers often turn to online shopping for the one-click convenience, but it can easily turn into a major hassle if the goods delivered to your door turn out to be dangerous counterfeit products.
Groceries, clothes, electronics and cosmetics are just some of the goods millions of Americans buy online.
“It doesn’t make me feel safe buying certain products from eBay,” Nick Campbell recently told Amy Davis, consumer reporter from News 6 sister station KHOU in Houston.
Campbell, of Sacramento, California, had recently purchased what was supposed to be a “Genuine Apple Macbook Pro Refurbished Charger.” His wife plugged it into her MacBook, but the charger didn’t appear to be work. Campbell tried it on his own Mac; no luck there either.
As if $25 down the drain for a faulty charger wasn’t bad enough, Campbell was unknowingly in for an even nastier surprise.
“It fried the computer,” he said.
And not just one. The charger Campbell bought on eBay rendered both MacBooks useless. Apple told him repairs would cost more than $1,200.
“eBay was, ‘Sir, don’t worry. We will make sure you get your $24.98 refunded,’” Campbell recalled. “That doesn't come close to touching the damage that actually occurred.”
It turns out the charger Campbell purchased was counterfeit.
Two electronic analysts from Veritas Forensic Engineering compared another charger from the same eBay seller to an authentic Apple MacBook charger. They measured the weight and the voltage, and even X-rayed the inner components of both devices.
What they found was shocking.
"You can see there’s a lot more components and a lot more electronic circuitry in the Apple charger,” VFE’s Dave Reiter said.
Reiter and his colleague Michael Stahl confirmed the Apple charger was a fake and that it was missing important safety features.
“(It) could damage the electronics in the laptop or you’re also at risk of creating a potential fire,” Stahl said.
Customs Stepping Up Inspections
At ports and maritime terminals around the country, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers spend each day inspecting shipping containers boxes and looking for counterfeit goods.
Clothing, electronics, shoes, jewelry and purses are counterfeiters’ favorites. In the Northeast, officials use one of four giant warehouses -- each nearly the size of two football fields -- as staging areas to go through daily shipments.
Nationally, the number of seizures by customs has risen every year since 2007 and jumped by 25 percent in 2015. According to a recent report, USCBP officers seized $1.2 billion worth of counterfeit goods in 2017, down slightly from $1.38 billion worth of goods in 2016. The bulk of the fake items come from China and Hong Kong. Once counterfeit products are found, the seized shipments are destroyed.
But the feds can’t catch everything. Investigators say counterfeit goods are flowing into the U.S. and onto some of the biggest e-commerce sites.
Last January, the Government Accountability Office released results of an investigation in which it purchased dozens of items from third-party sellers hosted on sites including Amazon, Walmart and eBay.
What did they find? Out of the 47 items that were purchased, 20 of them turned out to be counterfeit. Six of nine Yeti travel mugs were fakes and all 13 shipments of Urban Decay cosmetics purchased for the investigation were phony.
“It’s not just shoes or handbags anymore,” said Kimberly Gianopoulos, a lead investigator with the GAO. “It’s pretty much everything we use on a day-to-day basis.”
Last year, beauty blogger Tanya Arguelles told CBS News she purchased a popular eye shadow in 2015 while shopping at a street market in downtown Los Angeles. After testing both the $50 purchase and a much more expensive name brand, Arguelles said she fell asleep and woke up in the morning to an itchy, uncomfortable and burning eye.
“Within the first 45 minutes, I realized that it was an eye infection. I couldn’t get my contacts on,” Arguelles said. “I looked back at the footage and it was on the fake side. Hundred percent.”
Others who have used counterfeit makeup products have had similar unfortunate reactions, including skin rashes, swollen lips, chemical burns and allergic reactions.
So what’s the bottom line? Be smart when you shop.
Phony electronics can end up costing you thousands of dollars in repairs and fake cosmetics can lead to severe medical problems. Both the GAO and customs officials have some very simple advice to keep consumers safe:
• Try to make your online purchases directly from the brand.
• Look for telltale signs of fake sellers like common misspellings or shoddy workmanship.
• If you are buying from a third party, keep an eye on price.
The old adage: “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is,” couldn’t be more apropos.