In recent years, the number of counterfeit consumer safety products and electronic components has grown exponentially in the United States. The problem has become so widespread that counterfeit airplane parts were even found in Air Force One. The threat of encountering imposters in the workplace is probable. Additionally, consumer safety products and electrical components account for an estimated 5–7 percent of all world trade.


The International AntiCounterfeit Coalition defines counterfeiting (or intellectual property theft) as a, “federal and state crime, involving the manufacturing or distribution of goods under someone else’s name, and without their permission.”


Counterfeit products are typically made from lower quality materials in an effort to pass them off for similar goods manufactured by recognized and trusted companies and brands.


“Manufacturers of counterfeits rely on deception and prices that are below market level to find their way into the workplace,” said Tom Grace, brand protection manager for Eaton Corp.’s electrical division, Moon Township, Pa. “This makes detecting the difference between a counterfeit and an authentic product difficult, especially as counterfeiters become more sophisticated.”


Using counterfeit electrical and safety products can pose major unexpected occupational risks. Products, such as knockoff circuit breakers, extension cords and surge protectors, are usually made without any attempt to meet minimal safety testing requirements or product standards. Poorly replicated wiring, infrastructure and switches have been found on construction projects. Overheating and short circuits are likely to occur, leading to electrical fires, shock, electrocution and even explosions, causing significant damage to people and property in the workplace.


Aside from the obvious safety risks, other harmful consequences are associated with counterfeits. Purchasing these products online can significantly increase the risk of credit card fraud and identity theft. 


In addition, the use of counterfeit products affects the average taxpayer. Purchasing counterfeit products also harms legitimate businesses that sell goods that meet all applicable standards and trade agreements. When these goods make it into government properties—such as schools, parks and hospitals—the everyday citizen has to foot the bill. 


Counterfeits cause job loss and damage to the economy. The Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFi) estimates that counterfeiting costs the American economy $200–$250 billion and 750,000 lost jobs annually.


So, how can you avoid buying counterfeit products? Purchasing electrical and safety products directly from the manufacturer or through one of the manufacturer’s authorized distributors or resellers can prevent the risk of encountering imposters. Products should not be bought from nontraditional or untrusted sources. 


Look closely at labels and packaging. Counterfeiters mimic the labels and packaging of known brands, and, if something appears off or you observe spelling or grammatical errors, contact the manufacturer to determine authenticity.


Steer clear of deals and unusually low prices. Chances are, if the price seems too good to be true, it probably is. 


Finally, according to ESFi’s Deadly Deals: Counterfeit, “Do your research. Organizations such as the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), CSA Group, and Underwriters Laboratories (UL) provide information about product recalls, including those related to counterfeiting, on their websites.”


In the event that a counterfeit or suspected counterfeit product finds its way into the workplace or on your job sites, notify the manufacturer. That company can either conduct an authentication or take action to have the potentially unsafe forgery removed from the market. If you can’t identify a manufacturer, contact the International Property Rights Center at IPRCenter@dhs.gov or call 866.477.2060. 


As a contractor, it is also a good idea to establish an internal reporting procedure. It will make all employees aware of the situation and keep them in the loop.


It is estimated that the Department of Homeland Security stops only a very small percentage of the counterfeit goods coming into the United States. Overcoming this may seem like a daunting task, but with greater awareness and diligence, we can hopefully put a bigger dent in this growing problem.


For more information about counterfeit electrical, safety or consumer products, visit www.dhs.gov/topic/fraud-and-counterfeiting.