Buyer beware: why snapping up a bargain could fund criminal gangs
Shoppers urged to be vigilant as scale of fake goods trade is laid bare... and it could even be deadly
The sale and purchase of counterfeit goods is costing Northern Ireland hundreds of millions of pounds every year.
The main culprits are organised crime gangs, and paramilitaries, but there has been a rise in what is known as the "bedroom counterfeiter", people who are selling all types of fake luxury items from their home.
A report four years ago by PricewaterhouseCoopers showed that outside of London, Northern Ireland was the UK counterfeit capital.
And with the rise of social media and buy-and-sell sites on Facebook, the problem is growing. Worldwide the crime costs an estimated 50bn dollars each year and across the UK it's around £10bn.
Two years ago, Trading Standards were able to identity 66 counterfeit sellers on just one Facebook buy-and-sell site here within 30 minutes.
And as the problem increases, so too does the way in which the products are produced - making it harder for the customer to tell the difference.
The products come from many different places, but mostly Eastern Europe and the Far East.
Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.
Certain goods have become more popular on the market, for example fake big brand make-up and phone chargers. However, with products like cosmetics, they are often being made in unsanitary conditions and horrific things like arsenic, rat droppings and urine, and sawdust, can find their way into the goods.
Damien Doherty, chief inspector at Northern Ireland Trading Standards Service, meets quarterly with partner agencies to assess the scale of the problem.
He says there has been a distinct change in how and who is perpetrating the crime in Northern Ireland.
"Predominantly it was organised crime gangs in the past, who are still very much involved and they are certainly the main players.
"But we have seen a massive upsurge, particularly in the last ten years, from what we term 'bedroom counterfeiters'.
"It could be a married couple, both in work, who have decided to sell (fake) Disney DVDs, make-up and any number of luxury goods items and essentially it's a side-line.
"The figures from what people are making with selling counterfeit goods can run into the hundreds of thousands each year.
"People are making big money, they are seeing it as a side-line and very easy to basically sell the goods that they have on offer through buy-and-sell sites, particularly on social media," says Mr Doherty.
"Some run their business like any normal business - they give you a delivery time as to when they are going to come out and deliver your counterfeit goods.
"Particularly coming up to Christmas you are likely to see people buying sportswear, handbags, designer sunglasses, electrical products and certainly cosmetics and alcohol online.
"Sometimes it appears in bars, pubs clubs and off-licences as well," the officer adds.
Trading Standards say they have a steady stream of prosecutions and take about five counterfeit cases a year.
"We did a very recent seizure of counterfeit phone products; Apple and Samsung phone chargers, phone covers and accessories.
"We seized hundreds of items from various outlets throughout Northern Ireland."
The trade in fake cosmetics has taken off in the last five years with big sought-after brands like MAC, Urban Decay and Chanel all among those being routinely counterfeited.
Trading Standards said that in a lot of cases, beauty salons and parlours, who end up selling the products, have bought them unwittingly.
Mr Doherty explains: "A lot of time and investment is put into the aesthetics of counterfeit products to make the packaging seem legit.
"So on first look, and to someone who is not an expert, usually, because they buy them direct from China, they think they are buying a genuine product from the manufacturer. They are paying close to the real price for the product so they think they are shopping around, getting a bargain, but the price isn't so sufficiently low that it sets alarm bells ringing.
"Many people we seize products from have unwittingly purchased counterfeit goods and are horrified to find out that they've been selling them to the public.
"When we get these products tested and analysed they can contain lead, mercury, arsenic, cyanide and particularly in the make-up products that's what we are finding. The big concern for us is that people are applying these products to their skin."
One of the big problems with the rise of the online market is that it makes it trickier to follow the trail of those involved.
Mr Doherty adds: "When I started Trading Standards, things would have come in through ports and borders. They still do and get stopped routinely by UK border force and HMRC (Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs) and by Trading Standards working at ports and borders.
"Also, the Office of Product Safety and Standards, a new organisation set up last year, has now obtained responsibility for doing checks on ports and borders on behalf of the Trading Standards Service.
"These products are still coming through in large containers.
"But we do find that people, particularly the bedroom counterfeiter, orders them in small enough quantities that they can be impossible to detect and they get through.
"Many are stopped at some of the postal halts and some of the border force teams identify them too.
"But many get through and end up getting delivered to your door and once you have them you put them on social media sites and sell them."
Previously the work of Trading Standards would have centred around markets and retail premises, but this has decreased as individuals get involved from the comfort of their own home.
Mr Doherty says one of the most common misconceptions is the notion that it is a "victimless crime".
People have lost their lives in the manufacture of products when, for example, factories producing counterfeit alcohol have exploded.
"Counterfeiting funds organised crime gangs, it funds criminality, there is no tax paid back into the Treasury," he adds.
"When this money is taken away from legitimate business there is no re-investment.
"They also have no consideration for the health and well-being of the individuals that buy their product.
"They have very little consideration for the people making the product as well, in many cases they use child labour in factories in the Far East.
"There can be very catastrophic circumstances, where factories have blown up, in particular when they are making products such as alcohol, and people have lost their lives.
"Don't be thinking you are getting a bargain, there is a very real cost for consumers and for the public."
To beat the counterfeiters, consumers need to be alert and scrutinise products - as such is the level of the crime, some items are even making their way into the genuine supply chain.
Trading Standards recently seized shampoo and toothpaste from a high street chain that thought they were legit.
Mr Doherty says to look out for things like spelling mistakes, strange smells and question where you are getting it from - would that brand have authorised this venue or person to sell this product?
"If you are buying Benefit make-up or Chanel or MAC or Urban Decay and it's not in one of the approved authorised retailers, you need to ask questions.
"Unless it's a bought and owned product that hasn't been used, that's for sale on the likes of eBay or any other classified sales sites, you need to start asking questions as to why someone would have the authority to sell a particular product.
"You also have to look at the price, invariably it would be cheaper than you would be buying it in the likes of House of Fraser or Debenhams or Boots, and again ask yourself why and how someone is going to sell MAC make-up at a 50% discount or 75% off the normal cost."
He adds: "People need to be aware that a lot of products are counterfeited and in such large scale that they are on sale routinely throughout Northern Ireland and in many cases they are actually infiltrating the genuine supply chain.
"We have seized counterfeit shampoo and toothpaste from major high street retailers in the past.
"And they have no reason to believe the product was fake and they had got it from an approved distributor."
Detective Chief Inspector Brian Foster from PSNI's Organised Crime Task Force has urged the public not to "help fund" the individuals involved.
He says: "Consumers buying counterfeit goods may see the sub-standard materials and replica logos as a small price to pay for cut-price designer brand products.
"However, not only can many of the products cause physical harm to individuals, purchasing counterfeit goods may ultimately fund other illegal activities.
"We continue to see organised crime groups and paramilitaries involved in the supply of counterfeit goods as a way to generate income.
"These profits can then be used to fund further criminality such as the purchase of firearms, drug dealing and human trafficking - all with the aim of lining the pockets of paramilitaries and criminals."