Online bargain hunters, beware of fake holiday deals

Sunglasses for sale
Noel Celis | AFP | Getty Images

Go hunting for the lowest price this holiday season, and you might end up with something worse—a counterfeit product.

Ten percent of online bargain hunters end up on a counterfeit seller's site in the course of their search for popular products, according to a study released Wednesday from brand protection firm MarkMonitor. Once there, 1 in 6 show "intent to purchase" by putting an item in their cart. (No word on how many actually end up pulling the trigger.)

"Let the gift recipient beware, if the gift-giver was a bargain hunter and shopped at the wrong place," said Edgar Dworsky, founder of advocacy site ConsumerWorld.org.

How to spot a fake
How to spot a fake   

Industry groups have warned of counterfeit holiday light strands with faulty wiring that could be a fire hazard; problems with knockoff toys include unsafe lead levels and small parts that pose a choking risk. Analysis of counterfeit perfumes has found ingredients such as antifreeze and urine.

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In other words, not the kind of festive impression you're hoping to make.

If there's good news, it's that fewer consumers are purposely hunting for fakes to save a buck. MarkMonitor estimates there's one person actually looking for that knockoff for every 28 bargain hunters. That's down from one for every 20 bargain hunters in 2012.

"Still, it's a very big problem," said Frederick Felman, chief marketing officer for MarkMonitor. Especially as the ranks of online shoppers swell—this year, the National Retail Federation expects online sales growth of up to 11 percent, versus 4.1 percent in overall sales growth. "There are going to be a lot of new shoppers there who will be readily duped by this," he said.

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Avoiding fakes isn't easy. "The question presumes you can tell," Dworsky said. Even if you do know all the hallmarks of, say, a particular designer bag when buying online, it's easy for a counterfeit seller to send something other than what's pictured or described.

Scrutinizing the retailer helps. Some brands, including Apple and Coach, also post lists on their websites of retailers authorized to sell or distribute their products.

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If a web search turns up a store you aren't familiar with, search for the name in conjunction with terms like "counterfeit" or "scam" to see if that's an issue, Feldman said. "You want to look at the reviews, which will tell you the quality of the experience people have," he said. That holds true even on big-name retailers like Amazon or eBay, where third-party sellers can create their own product listings.

Of course, the biggest red flag is price. "If the price is just so out of line for the going price of an item, it has to raise an eyebrow," said Dworsky.

Paying with a credit card is smart, too. The Fair Credit Billing Act gives cardholders the right to dispute transactions, said Dworsky. "That's going to be your ultimate protection," he said.