Digital Technology Spurs World of Fakes

Every morning, you scrub on your favorite soap, lather in your best shampoo and finish it all off with a spritz of your preferred fragrance … or at least you think you do.

Increasingly, some say, there's a chance many of the products you believe are genuine are actually phony.

It's not just pirated CDs, DVDs, videos and faux Rolexes on the street corner anymore, according to people who monitor product fakes.

Virtually everything from the mundane — such as auto parts, pharmaceuticals, children's toys and shampoo — to the exotic — such as vintage wines, artwork and airplane parts — is being knocked off more easily these days, in many cases thanks to easily available, home-based digital technology.

"It's now possible to fake everything," said David M. Hopkins, co-author of Counterfeiting Exposed: How to Protect Your Brand and Market Share. "It's not just the contents. It's the ability to fake the packaging. It's the ability to fake the labels. In some cases, it's certificates of authenticity. Everything is fake."

Someone Makes It, Someone Else Fakes It

Nailing down firm numbers on this loosely monitored, underworld trade policed by numerous agencies is difficult, but it clearly is "a rapidly increasing problem," said Hopkins, director of international business programs in the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver.

"We reckon that counterfeiting accounts for about 5 to 7 percent of world trade every year, which equates to a figure of approximately $350 billion," said Peter Lowe, assistant director of the International Chamber of Commerce's Commercial Crime Services unit in London, which monitors the problem for corporate clients.

Besides the easier availability of home computing and printing equipment, the emergence of the Internet as a networking, sales and how-to channel also may be fueling the increase in counterfeit products, Lowe said.

The problem can be potentially dangerous. According to Lowe, a counterfeit bolt is suspected in a 1989 plane crash in Scandinavia that killed 55 people, and tainted medicine blamed for the 1990 deaths of dozens of children in Nigeria might have been counterfeit, though neither case could be conclusively documented.

Some products have particularly bad problems. For example, estimates suggest as much as 50 percent to 90 percent of sports memorabilia on the U.S. market could be bogus, according to a San Diego FBI official, whose office led a crackdown on faux sports memorabilia called Operation Bullpen.

U.S. Fakes

Though the general problem of counterfeit goods appears more common overseas, counterfeit items circulate in the United States, too.

Last year, for instance, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the drug company Amgen warned pharmacists and others to beware of counterfeit Epogen, a drug to treat anemia. According to the FDA, the fake version's active ingredient was 20 times weaker than it was supposed to be — which perhaps could cause consumers not to get their proper dosage.

(The FDA posts warnings about fake drugs online at http://www.fda.gov/medwatch/SAFETY/2003/safety03.htm.)

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