6 Counterfeit Products That Can Ruin a Lot More Than Just Your Day

Peddlers of fake wares are doing more than just ripping you off.

Photo Credit: R.P.M Photo / Shutterstock

When we think of counterfeit products, we may envision cheap watches, sunglasses, or handbag knock-offs sold by edgy street vendors or shadowy guys in trench coats. These are harmless enough as far as ripoffs go, with damage only done to the unwitting buyers' pocketbooks and pride when the goods self-destruct a short time later. But today, you'd be hard pressed not to find a product without a bogus double. These frauds can come with high costs to our economy, privacy, safety, and health. Here's six products you may have already purchased that can have nasty and unexpected consequences.

1. Booze.Bogus liquor isn't some new trend; unscrupulous distillers have fooled and even poisoned revelers since at least the time of Alexander the Great. But the new popularity of high-end liquors has been followed by many toxic fake spirits trying to cash in on the trend. Unfortunately, many of these sham liquors can sicken, blind, even kill those who drink them.

European and Asian countries — notably China and Russia — have big problems with spurious booze that often contains ethylene glycol, methanol, isopropyl alcohol, industrial solvents and chemical dyes. Some fake liquor has found its way into the United Kingdom as well, where counterfeit bottles of Smirnoff and Glen's vodka have been seized by authorities in recent months.

In the U.S. it's far more common for bars to replace the contents in premium brand bottles with cheap liquors than for fake booze to wind up on liquor store shelves. Last year, 29 New Jersey bars, including an Applebee's, a Ruby Tuesday's and 13 TGIFriday franchises, were raided by police and cited for substituting cheap alcohol for the good stuff in a sting operation appropriately called Operation Swill. Investigators say one bar even sold dirty water as liquor, while another added food coloring to rubbing alcohol and sold it as scotch.

Consumers should pay particular attention when purchasing bottled liquor when traveling to foreign countries, be cautious of unfamiliar brand names and bottles with contents that contain sediments or have crooked or cheap-looking labels. If you're enjoying your libations stateside, be particularly careful when visiting unfamiliar bars and restaurants, even if they are part of a national chain. Don't order liquors or brands at bars if you're unfamiliar with their taste, aroma or color.

2. Olive Oil.That healthy olive oil you bought at the market might not be so healthy after all. In recent years, studies have indicated that as much as 70% of olive oil marked “extra virgin” does not meet the standards for the label. In fact, there have been several cases where olive oil refineries have been caught adulterating or entirely counterfeiting the oil.

Several months back, The New York Times published a graphical op-ed piece titled Extra Virgin Suicide. The paper maintains that some of the oil that reaches our store shelves is either mixed with cheaper vegetable oils or faked entirely by mixing vegetable oil with beta carotene and chlorophyll to mimic the flavoring and coloring of olive oil. The bottles are marked “Extra Virgin” and “Imported from Italy” and shipped to grocers around the world. The Times reports that since much of the olive oil is actually pressed in either Spain, Morocco, or Tunisia, these are not legally products of Italy at all.

Despite some solutions to detect fake olive oil that are be found on the Internet, it might be hard to tell if yours has been adulterated. Apparently, the counterfeiters have been at it so long that some people with trained palates can't even pick out the fake oils by taste alone. The biggest thing you'll miss is all the healthy benefits of olive oil's monounsaturated fatty acids, which are known to reduce cholesterol levels and may help normalize blood clotting and insulin levels.

It's falsely reported that because olive oil is rich in oleic acid and triolein — which have melting points that are just above a refrigerator's interior temperature — that real olive oil will solidify when cooled, while adulterated oil will not. However, researchers at the Olive Center at the University of California Davis put this theory to a test, comparing real extra-virgin olive oils to blends and found that none of the samples fully solidified. In fact, the sample that came the closest to solidifying was a olive/canola oil mixture.

Another popular test is the oil lamp test. As extra-virgin olive oil burns in a lamp, it's widely believed that blends will not. However, sunflower and canola oils, sometimes used in adulteration, burn in oil lamps as well.

Your best bet for protecting yourself from fake olive oil is to cut out the middleman and buy known brands that refine their own oil and don't purchase it in bulk from third-party refineries that may adulterate the product.

3. Medicine.Counterfeit drugs can easily wind up in your medicine cabinet. Not only are these fake medications unlikely to be effective, they're often much worse than a placebo. Counterfeit drugs may contain some worrisome ingredients such as gypsum, brick powder, commercial paint, boric acid, and floor wax. If the fake medication has the real medication's active ingredient, it's usually cut considerably.

Fake medicine might be as simple as over-the-counter cold remedies, but more often they're knock-offs of prescription drugs. The most popular counterfeits are of erectile-dysfunction medications such as Cialis or Viagra, and are often obtained without a prescription through fraudulent Internet pharmacies located outside the U.S.

Even cancer sufferers are not immune from counterfeiters: Last month, the FDA alerted healthcare professionals to the presence of a counterfeit version of Altuzan, an injectable cancer medication that's not approved for sale in the U.S. The FDA identified a U.S. company, Medical Device King, as the source of the counterfeit, which contained no active ingredient.

The best way to protect yourself from counterfeit medications is to get them from a trusted physician or pharmacy in the U.S. and only buy medications that are approved by the FDA. If you're buying non-prescription medicine or supplements online, make sure that you only buy from retailers that are located in the U.S. and display a physical address and phone number on their website.

When it comes to purchasing prescription medication, it's probably best to visit brick-and-mortar pharmacies, but those who prefer to buy medications through the Internet should look for pharmacies that display the Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS) seal. These sites are licensed pharmacies which sell FDA-approved medications.

4. Digital Media.Nothing is as easily pirated as a product that exists in the ether. Movies, music, video games, and software are very easy to rip off and repackage. While we've all seen fake DVDs for sale from street vendors, beware of buying boxed software from anyone that's not an authorized retailer. Counterfeit boxed versions of Microsoft Windows and Office have circulated that can hijack computers, disable firewalls, erase data, and steal users' personal information.

Unfortunately, while most counterfeit media is obtained by consumers who know full-well they're buying something that's been pirated or forged, they might not know all the risks. Despite opening themselves up to prosecution by illegally downloading media, they're exposing their computer networks to malware and viruses.

Microsoft recently commissioned the International Data Corporation to do a study of counterfeit software, and what it found is alarming. It's estimated that 1 in 3 computers with counterfeit software are also infected with malware. According to IDC, this malware will come at a great cost to consumers globally, as they will likely spend up to $22 billion and 1.5 billion hours attempting to recover data and dealing with identity theft. The numbers are worse for those who knowingly download reproduced media from pirate or torrent sites, as 78% of the content on them is modified to install tracking cookies or spyware on computers.

Your best protection from counterfeit media is to buy from known retailers, whether brick-and-mortar or online. Packaged and security-sealed Blu-Rays, CDs and DVDs are often a safe bet, although fewer people now consume “boxed” media. If you obtain media online, buy it from reputable sites authorized to distribute digital media. Do not obtain files from friends as malware and viruses are often hidden in files that are commonly shared. Also, invest in anti-virus software to detect rogue files on your computer and back up your data often.

5. Shoes.A few decades back, the knock-off shoe market mostly targeted expensive athletic shoes and counterfeits were sold through street vendors. Today's phony shoes are often sold through fly-by-night online retailers and sometimes they even make their way into brick-and-mortar stores. Everything from Ugg boots to Crocs are faked today. In 2012, U.S. Customs and Border Protection confiscated some 20,000 pairs of fake Christian Louboutin shoes from a cargo ship just arrived from China. (The opulent red-soled women's shoes are only manufactured in Italy.)

Counterfeit shoes can pose health and safety risks for their wearers. Shoddily constructed shoes can lead to feet and back problems. Product failure, particularly in high-heeled sandals, can pose an injury risk.

The best way to spot counterfeit shoes is to put them through the “Cinderella test.” Don't buy shoes you haven't walked in and inspected first. You should easily be able to tell a knock-off from the real thing: High-end quality shoes feel solid and balanced when you walk in them. Eyelets and buckles should be made of hard metals, soles should be free of molding lines, and the upper shoe and the sole should make even contact all around with no visible glue.

6. Electronics.According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, electronic devices and components make up the bulk of fake goods making their way into the U.S. Smartphones, tablets, music and DVD players, and other consumer electronics are routinely counterfeited and make their way into retailers, and it's not always easy to spot a fake. Variations are as subtle as the shape of a switch or a slightly off-color. As many as 80% of worldwide electronics consumers have purchased counterfeit products, according to the International Chamber of Commerce.

In addition, knock-off computer components and supplies, such as monitors, media cards, lithium batteries, and power supplies also pose a problem. Computer-hardware analysts estimate that counterfeit components cost the U.S. semiconductor industry more than $7.5 billion per year in lost revenue as they permeate our IT supply chain.

As the source of these electronic items are not known—although many IT experts point the finger at China—safety becomes a concern. The potential health and safety risks to consumers include electrical shock, increased radiation exposure, fire and explosion. Some reports show that fake components have even made their way into critical defense systems, which could compromise national security. There is also concern that counterfeit components could adversely affect commercial, transportation and medical systems.

As a consumer, your best bet is to buy electronics from authorized retailers and avoid buying used or refurbished electronics and components from unknown retailers on Internet resale and auction sites.

Cliff Weathers is a former deputy editor of Consumer Reports who also served as a senior editor at AlterNet. He was one of the first journalists to sound the alarm over the extreme dangers of fracking and the shipping volatile Bakken crude oil by rail. His articles on technology, green cars, alternative energy, water and sustainability have appeared in several publications, including Car and Driver, Playboy, Salon and Raw Story. Twitter: @cliffweathers.