It’s quick, convenient and ships right to your front door. But a Marketplace investigation found that you can’t always trust what you purchase online — even if the seller, platform or price seems legit.
To test how prevalent counterfeits are online, Marketplace purchased dozens of well-known products — ranging from electronics to sportswear to cosmetics — from five popular online retailers: AliExpress, Amazon, eBay, Walmart and Wish.
Each product listing seemed legitimate, with some prices that compared to retail stores and official-looking advertisements.
More than half of the products Marketplace received were suspected or confirmed counterfeits, with knockoffs found on every platform.
And in some cases, Marketplace found that the risk of ending up with a knockoff might be more than just a financial hit.
Alarming levels of heavy metals
Some of the goods purchased by Marketplace were health and beauty products from multiple brands, including MAC lipstick, Crest Whitestrips, Kylie Cosmetics lip kits, Urban Decay’s “Naked” eyeshadow pallets and Biotherm eye cream.
The products were then sent to a scientific lab in the Toronto area for heavy metal analysis.
Two products — both purchased from AliExpress — contained heavy metal levels exceeding Health Canada’s standards for cosmetics.
The first, Mac Lustre Lipstick in “Lady Danger” was confirmed to be counterfeit by parent company Estee Lauder. One big giveaway? Lady Danger is not one of the brand’s “lustre” shades, but rather is part of its matte line of lipsticks.
What’s more, the product was found to contain 751 times the amount of lead Health Canada considers acceptable in cosmetics.
That’s a big concern, says University of Guelph toxicologist Ryan Prosser, because the product goes on the lips and could be easily ingested. “It’s pretty shocking,” he said.
Exposure to high levels of lead could have an impact on a person’s cognitive ability, he said. It’s an even larger risk for children, who have still developing nervous systems.
“You could obviously expose children if they’re playing with the lipstick, playing dress-up, or if they’re in contact with a caregiver that’s wearing lipstick,” said Prosser.
One of the Kylie Jenner lip kits purchased also contained a worrisome level of a heavy metal; it was found to have more than double the amount of mercury that Health Canada sees as “technically avoidable” in cosmetics.
Like lead, mercury is a neurotoxin. Increased exposure to mercury could impact the nervous system, particularly in children and pregnant women.
Jenner’s company would not confirm whether the product was counterfeit, but industry experts had strong suspicions due to a glaring typo: The celebrity’s name was incorrectly spelled on the back of the packaging as “Kyile.” The word “cosmetics” was also spelled incorrectly.
The potential dangers of counterfeit goods extend well beyond makeup. Reports show that counterfeit toys, drugs, car seats, airbags and electronics have put people at risk, in some cases, even causing death.
And those products that don’t appear dangerous could still have severe repercussions.
Toronto-based lawyer and counterfeit expert David Lipkus notes that fakes are an industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars in North America alone.
“This impacts on organized crime and a lot of the funding goes to terrorism,” he said.
It’s a concern shared by Lorrie Turner, legal counsel and senior vice-president of brand protection for headwear brand New Era Cap Co.
“All of that money is used illegitimately to support other criminal activities,” she said. “While you may think it’s just an individual trying to earn money, ultimately all that money goes toward nefarious things.”
Interpol states on its website that there is a clear link between illicit trade of fake or pirated goods and other crime, including human trafficking, drug trafficking and money laundering.
In 2014, the United Nations Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice said that counterfeiting was the second-largest source for criminal incomes worldwide.
And in 2015, those who orchestrated the deadly attack on French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo raised money to buy their weapons by selling counterfeit Nike shoes on the streets of Paris.
Weeding out the fakes
In order to verify the legitimacy of the products purchased by Marketplace, we asked the products’ official manufacturers to review what was purchased.
In cases where there was no response from the manufacturers, three counterfeit products experts were consulted and asked to verify the products’ authenticity.
A number of companies, including Apple, Fanatics, Adidas, Lego and MAC, confirmed that Marketplace was sold at least one counterfeit product from either AliExpress, Amazon, Ebay and Wish.
Among the products confirmed to be counterfeit were sports jerseys, Apple Airpods, a MAC lipstick and Lego.
In the case of one pair of Apple Airpods, purchased on eBay, the product was determined to be legitimate but Apple confirmed it had counterfeit packaging and a third-party lightning cable. They were described in the online listing as “manufacturer refurbished,” which Apple said was untrue.
Five of the products purchased — three packages of Crest WhiteStrips and two cellphone chargers — could not be verified, mainly due to missing packaging. Crest advises that consumers should only purchase Crest Whitestrips when they are in a sealed box.
99,500 vs. 69 shipments stopped
After Marketplace was easily able to order a number of suspected and confirmed counterfeit products online, we set out to discover what Canada’s border agency was doing to stop such shipments.
But a request made under the Access to Information Act revealed that between June 2015 and May 2018, Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) have detained just 69 shipments related to counterfeit goods.
By contrast, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection made over 99,500 seizures during a similar three-year period.
The low number of detained shipments is perhaps surprising, given that Canada introduced a law — the Combating Counterfeit Products Act — in 2014 that “enables customs officers to detain goods that they suspect infringe copyright or trademark rights.”
“Our approach is different from that of the U.S. in that our interdiction focus is on health safety and security threats,” the CBSA said in a statement.
Annual stoppages at the border appear to be increasing: CBSA told Marketplace they detained 63 shipments between April and September 2019.
Lipkus is glad there’s more action, but says it’s also clear there’s still work to be done.
“The numbers are so glaringly different because the U.S. government has armed and given the power to the U.S. customs and prioritized and provided adequate resources to address the issue,” he said.
“There’s no question that the United States is doing more. And there’s no question that Canada and our amazing border officers need more money and resources to address this issue so the numbers increase.”
That’s not the only criticism Canada has received from others fighting counterfeits.
The Office of the United States Trade Representative releases a list of “notorious markets” annually, which lists major markets around the world where copyright infringement and counterfeit trade takes place.
Ontario’s Pacific Mall appeared on that list in 2017.
In 2018, the mall located just north of Toronto was raided by York Regional Police, who seized thousands of counterfeit goods. In May 2019, eight people were charged with knowingly or recklessly making false representation to the public and selling or distributing goods in association with a trademark. One of those people was also charged with possession of proceeds of crime.
Marketplace visited the mall almost one year after the initial raid and found many goods were openly being sold as knockoffs. A followup visit earlier this month confirmed fakes were still on many store shelves.
In addition to consumers seeking out authorized retailers, store owners also need to have more of a role in verifying their products, Lipkus said.
“It would be great if intermediaries and landlords made more of an effort to protect consumers and ensure that the vendors stop selling counterfeit merchandise to consumers in Canada,” he said.
A spokesperson for Pacific Mall said consumer health and safety is a top priority for the shopping outlet, and they believe the sale of counterfeits at the mall is extremely limited.
They also said they issue warnings to store owners, and work with manufacturers and local police to help identify fakes.
Canada’s counterfeit problem
When Marketplace enlisted industry experts to help point out potentially counterfeit products, they pointed out reasons such as stitching, typos, quality, and serial numbers.
Experts suspected fakes on every platform Marketplace purchased from.
Walmart disputed the findings, but all companies said that they are committed to stopping and preventing the sale of counterfeit goods on their platforms.
Experts are reluctant to share some tips, as not to tip the counterfeiters off, but there are some things consumers can do if they suspect they may have purchased a counterfeit.
The first is to reach out directly to the rights holder.
That’s what Douglas Folks did after he suspected something was off with a couple of sound machines he had purchased for his kids on Amazon.
“We were expecting our third and we thought, ‘Well, let’s get a couple more sound machines, one for each of the kids’ rooms,'” he said.
Folks purchased the same model he had previously bought, from a seller listed as “MARPAC,” the brand name of the sound machine.
But when he plugged the new machine in to test it, he quickly noticed a difference in quality: it was weaker than his other devices.
Folks reached out to Marpac directly, which confirmed the machines were counterfeit.
“What bothered me the most was the fact that this ran through Amazon Prime,” said Folks. “It also had an ‘Amazon’s Choice’ stamp on the page, which to me seems like it’d been vetted.”
Amazon apologized, promising it wouldn’t happen again, and sent Folks a link that they said was real.
He ordered again, and a few days later the machines arrived. This time, something was familiar about the packaging.
“I opened the box [and] I noticed right away that there was a little rip in one of the boxes,” he said. “And when I put the last ones away that I shipped back with my first order, I had ripped the box in a particular spot.”
Checking the serial numbers, Folks and Marpac were able to confirm that these machines were also counterfeit — and Folks suspected they were the exact ones he just sent back.
Amazon’s executive customer service team said it was investigating, but Folks says he hasn’t heard anything since.
“I’m shocked. They’re sending out counterfeit goods and they seem to want to do nothing with them,” he said. “How many other people is this happening to?”
Part of the reason why Folks could have received a counterfeit machine is because third-party sellers on Amazon can list their products under a brand’s listing, making it tough to tell who you’re actually receiving products from.
Marketplace reached out to Amazon, who confirmed that even if a product is listed as being sold by a brand name, there could be multiple selling partners.
To avoid falling victim to counterfeits, Lipkus recommends consumers purchase their products directly from authorized sellers and not through third-party marketplaces.
Lipkus also points to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre’s Project Chargeback, which partners with credit card companies to fight counterfeiting. If you report your purchase and the address you bought it from, you could get a refund.
“But more importantly,” said Lipkus, “it could trigger an investigation into the merchant.”