July 22, 2010 -- They are like jewelry for the feet -- sleek, sensuous designer shoes. What's not to love about them?
"It's just the way they make you feel when you put them on," said shoe lover Natalie Abugov, 26. "It's like putting on a face of makeup in the morning...and shoes always fit, and shoes always look the same, and it never changes."
One of the most popular names is Christian Louboutin. The shoes, with their signature red soles, are popping up on celebrity red carpets and TV. Jennifer Lopez even sings about "throwing on her Louboutins" in her single, "Louboutins." The pricey shoes start at around $595 and go up from there.
Online sales of designer shoes are booming. According to NDP Group, a consumer research firm, online shoe sales generated just under $1 billion in sales through September 2009. Despite the recession, sales were up 25 percent. It's no surprise that savvy fashionistas like Abugov are turning to the Internet to look for deals.
A Google search for "christian louboutin" returns 11.6 million results. Immediately, some major department store Web sites pop up, but also many "discount" Web sites that seem to offer Louboutins for a fraction of the price in stores. The discounted prices seem too good to be true.
"I went to the site, and when you look at the pictures of all of the shoes ...you have the option -- just like any other site has -- to zoom on the shoes and to see alternate pictures. And they were all the real shoes, with real pictures and "guaranteeing authenticity," said Abugov.
"20/20" selected nine of the more popular designer shoes -- as seen on celebrities -- and purchased them from eight different "discount" Web sites.
At the site, Gallardofashion.com, we couldn't resist high fashion snakeskin pumps, called "Rolando Roccia Grey." The site says the pumps are "python covered" and "made in Italy." This pair of Louboutins typically retails for $1,200. We snagged a pair for a third of that at $400. And the Web site guaranteed its authenticity.
Seems to be a great deal? Or is it?
"20/20" recruited Cameron Silver and Christos Garkinos, co-owners of the popular "Decades Two" store in Los Angeles, to compare our discount purchases to their genuine counterparts. They weren't fooled for a minute.
"You gotta be real drunk...to think these are real," Silver said, after inspecting the pair.
Real vs. Fake Louboutins
Compared to the real Louboutin shoe, the online copies looked like "you took a picture of a snake and just kind of molded it around the shoe," said Garkinos. "Have you ever seen a snake with no scales at all?"
"For $400, that's a complete rip-off."
"20/20" ordered another shoe, called "The Dillian Pump," for just $176 from Genuine-louboutins.com. They were far from genuine.
The shoes we received looked nothing like the picture that was on the Web site. "It's $176 worth of plastic, it's Tupperware on your foot," said Silver. He said the shoe had none of the "natural snake skin" advertised on the site.
Susan Scafidi, director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University, has watched the evolution of these fake designer shoe Web sites.
"Counterfeit designer shoes are a growing problem because shoes are the new 'it' item. A few years ago, it was handbags for everyone; now the focus is on the feet. Because there is a demand for…expensive beautiful complex designer shoes," said Scafidi, "China is answering that demand with cheap knockoffs."
At louboutinsale.com, we found a pair of Louboutin suede cage booties. It was instantly clear the shoes were fake since the suede was a shade of pink -- not beige, like the genuine shoe.
Red Flags: Made in China, Size, Construction
According to experts, another huge red flag that the shoes are fake is that they were shipped from China. Designer shoes generally come from Italy.
"If you get a package and you are expecting high-end expensive shoes from a designer brand, and it's from China, send it back," said Scafidi.
All nine shoes we purchased were shipped from China.
"Statistics show that in both Europe and the U.S., more than 80 percent of fake fashion comes from China," Scafidi said.
Scafidi points out the overall construction process is different. "Those details of the construction process for the real thing are not echoed in the construction process for the fakes, and they leave telltale signs."
Another warning sign is the sizing of the shoes. Even though we ordered the shoes in the correct size for "20/20" correspondent Deborah Roberts, many were a few sizes too big. Our experts say designer shoes are meant to be snug, not fit like canoes.
'Designer Shoes' Online: Buyer Beware
Some fakes we ended up with were better than others. The "something blue" Manolo Blahnik shoe we ordered looked -- from a distance -- very much like the one Carrie wears in the movie version of "Sex and the City."
"If I were to see that on a woman's foot across a crowded room, I'd probably think it's a real Manolo," said Cameron.
"Those would not make it out of Kansas. Like, those are awful," said Silver. "This is like a grammar school project with glue and glitter."
A strong chemical odor is another tipoff of a fake, as is poor stitching.
Shoes Purchased by '20/20' All Fake
To build credibility, some sites have real pictures of the shoes, photos of Christian Louboutin himself, and celebrities wearing the shoes.
"Counterfeits will always be of whatever is highest and most popular, at the moment...that means those lovely red soles by Christian Louboutin," Scafidi warned. "When models and celebrities wear it, so does everyone else."
Luxury brands lost $250 billion last year to counterfeit goods, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and counterfeit shoes account for over $99 million of that.
Designer Shoes: Deal of a Lifetime for Fashionista?
Abugov, who works in fashion, was looking for a few pairs of highly-coveted designer shoes and turned to the Web for a bargain. She purchased one Christian Louboutin strappy pair and trendy YSL pumps for just under $400, advertised as the real deal. She thought she got the deal of a lifetime. She didn't.
"I opened [the box], I knew right away," she said. "The first thing a girl wants to do when they get a pair of shoes is try them on...the fit wasn't there. The quality of the top part of the shoe...was when I knew...it gave it away immediately. ...The shoe was buckling everywhere, it looked completely awful on the foot."
The Web site had guaranteed the shoes' authenticity and customer satisfaction. Abugov said she e-mailed the site several times to try to get a refund, with no luck.
She has never worn the shoes, and calls them a costly $400 lesson learned.
"The reality is that a real designer shoe is never going to be that price and the perceived "value" -- regardless of whether someone is willing to sell them for a third of the price," she said.
While authorities frequently raid illegal operations even in China, as soon as some sites are shut down, new ones pop up. The official Louboutin website, which doesn't sell shoes online, lists dozens of Web sites selling fake louboutins and warns that others come up, almost on a daily basis.
"At present we do not operate e-commerce on this site," says the warning. "All other Web sites with the name Christian Louboutin are illegal and may sell counterfeit products."
The statement invited customers to visit the "our boutiques" section of the site, where an official list of Christian Louboutin boutiques and authorized retailers can be found.
To avoid scams, experts advise sticking to major department store Web sites and others with a good reputation and to buy from authorized dealers.
What did sites where we bought our shoes that turned out to be fake tell us? Almost all offered "20/20" a refund. Gallardo Fashion.com stands by the authenticity of their shoes, but says if the shoes ordered by "20/20" are fake, it's their suppliers fault. One site scolded us, saying the shoes were so cheap, we should have known better.
It's the old lesson -- when the deal is too good to be true, it probably is.