When thinking of counterfeit products, minds may wander to a person on the street selling near-authentic looking bags, sunglasses, and watches, for a fraction of the price of what would be paid at a store. But what if there were products – contact lenses, energy drinks, birth control, diabetic testing strips – that were counterfeit? How could they be identified as authentic or not?

The reality is that with today’s technology, almost anything can be counterfeited. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation Development (OECD) projects that counterfeit goods represent 3.3 percent of total global trade, a number that is rising. While items like bags and professional sports jerseys may simply undercut an organization’s bottom line, some goods are more damaging. Products with low volume and high price points are often top targets for fraudsters, such as prescription medication and medical devices. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), pharmaceuticals and personal care products account for 7 percent of 2018’s Customs and Border Protection’s Intellectual Property Rights Annual Seizures. Even outside pharmaceuticals and personal care, DHS reports that there are other dangers: consumer electronics or children’s toys failing electric safety or metal contaminant tests, and pirated medical books that “contain errors that endanger patients’ lives.”

When considering a particularly harsh flu season – or worse, a global health epidemic – some products can prove to be the line between health and illness. In extreme cases, such as surgical procedures or lifesaving medication, it could mean the difference between life and death.

With the list of products susceptible to counterfeiting seemingly limitless, how can consumers and businesses protect themselves against fake products? Below are three core questions to help determine whether a product is real or faux.

  • Who is the vendor or supplier? The rise of online marketplaces has made it more difficult to determine whether a seller is legitimate, or if they are pushing counterfeit products among real vendors. Consumers can get ahead of nefarious vendors by ensuring suppliers are who they say they are: read customer reviews, examine the company website, identify their headquarters and how long they have been in business, and run searches on the company outside the given marketplace for additional feedback. For corporations, vetting an increasing number of competitive suppliers can prove challenging as well, but in these cases, similar steps in the research process should be taken. If suspicions arise, engaging a third party for due diligence or an independent review of a supplier can mitigate issues with potential counterfeit products, saving resources and potential reputational damage along the way.
  • Does the product match past experience? This is a particularly important point for products that have previously been purchased, whether it is a personal electronic device or cosmetics for individual consumers, or bulk-ordered parts for a manufacturer. First, examine the packaging for differences. For consumers and industrial products, this could mean checking the font style, packaging color, or text for typos. Moreover, examine for inconsistencies in quality, feel, and even smell – these can aid in determining the authenticity of a product. If there is any question, contacting the company the product is purported to be produced by can clear the air on whether the piece at hand is authentic or counterfeit.
  • Is it a deal or a dupe? For consumers, discount stores often offer overstock items for a more affordable price. Yet, buyers should beware: as the old adage says, if the deal feels too good to be true, it probably is. This resonates across the board for consumer and industrial purchasers alike, including retailers who could be purchasing wholesale items for a “deal” that actually turns out to be counterfeit. For example, specialty items like cosmetics and personal hygiene products should be purchased with extra caution, as extreme markdowns on these items can prove to be skillfully crafted counterfeits. When it comes to products that are ingested or used on skin, this can be particularly dangerous – so heightened vigilance is key.

As professionals and law enforcement continue cracking down on counterfeit goods, prevention is still the best medicine. By putting controls in place – whether at the consumer or industrial level – identifying the counterfeiters can help protect health, safety, and integrity in the long-term.