23rd May 2018

The real cost of fake goods

Counterfeits may seem harmless to consumers, but the risks are real


By JTS Staff
Journal of Trading Standards' in-house team
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Counterfeit goods are sometimes seen as components in a victimless crime – some would argue that the only people who really lose out from their sale are the global brands whose products they seek to emulate, while those consumers who purchase them get to have something that looks the part – until it inevitably breaks or falls to pieces – at a fraction of the cost.

But you only have to look at some of the appalling recent cases of counterfeit goods having very real consequences on consumers’ lives to see that they present a significant danger to public safety.

Eye-watering impact
Counterfeit cosmetics have been found to contain dangerously high levels of lead and other toxic chemicals such as methanol, which can cause skin irritation and damage the eyes and nervous system. In some cases, counterfeit make-up has even been found to contain human faeces.

Counterfeiting costs the UK cosmetics sector more than £200m per year, driving up costs for consumers and legitimate businesses, and having a significant impact on jobs within the industry.

While fake cosmetics are often being sold online on auction sites and via social media, they are all too often present at street markets and car boot sales – since such events surge in popularity over the summer months, trading standards officers and the general public are urged to be particularly vigilant.

Shocking statistics
Counterfeit electrical goods are another area of particular concern. Trading standards officers in Staffordshire recently seized a haul of knock-off Nokia mobile phones and chargers which, aside from being poor-quality imitations of the real thing, presented a fire hazard and posed a danger of electric shocks.

A report by Electrical Safety First highlights that the UK market for fake electrical goods is estimated to be worth £1.3bn per year, of which £900m is funnelled towards organised crime.

And with faulty electrical products being responsible for 7,000 household fires in the UK per year – at an average cost of £44,500 each – the financial damage that such items can wreak is enormous, to say nothing of the often tragic human cost.

Changing attitudes
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing trading standards and legitimate businesses is around public attitudes towards counterfeit products. Some 2% of the UK’s population have knowingly bought a counterfeit electrical item in the past year for example – that’s more than a million people. Obviously the number of people unwittingly purchasing fake items is significantly higher.

Informing people about the detrimental effects of such products should be a priority. Whatever consumers are tempted by – a cheap handbag, toy, lipstick, mobile phone or packet of cigarettes – the very real financial and health costs can dramatically outweigh the benefits of any short-term saving.

Another priority should be promoting consumer awareness of the safety standards that genuine goods must adhere to. One reliable indicator of a product’s safety is the Conformité Européenne (CE) mark. The presence of this provides assurance that the item upon which it is displayed conforms to EU safety requirements.

According to CTSI chief executive Leon Livermore, “Unsafe and dangerous products put UK citizens’ lives at risk. CE marking is a valuable tool in enabling trading standards to ensure goods sold in the UK meet the highest standards.”