How to Spot 10 Counterfeit Products

The next time you ogle discount handbags at a downtown street vendor, keep in mind counterfeit products cost the global economy an estimated $600 billion in legitimate revenue every year, or roughly the price of 240-million Prada handbags. No joke.

Fakes are hardly a shocking sight, but with the holidays hot on our collective heels, counterfeits of everything will be more prominent than usual. Of course, counterfeits are naturally enticing, especially when attached to dapper names like Louis Vuitton, Coach and Rolex. Most designer brands have some type of knock-off floating around, often a very convincing replica claiming to be the real thing but for much, much less.

Now, when I say counterfeit or imitation, I don't mean purposely off-brand items with no intention of masquerading as the Real McCoy. Truth is, whether you're buying designer shoes, bags or jewelry, the original is going to be expensive -- it's the reason those labels are coveted in the first place. Web shoppers looking for authenticity at online warehouses or on auction sites like eBay should be especially wary of cut-rate wolves in chic sheep's clothing.

Tips abound on how to dissect the many dishonest replicas of designer brands. One simple rule to always follow; make designer purchases with a fraud-protection credit card and never wire money or use a debit card. Here's a collection of the 10 most oft-imitated items, along with tips on how to see through and ultimately avoid supporting a multi-billion dollar black market.

1. UGG Boots
Imitation UGG Australia boots are far more prevalent than the legitimate boots themselves, forcing the brand to confront the problem head on with a counterfeit education page on it's official website. It's hard to tell if the brand's anti-imitation pandering is equivalent to Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich whining about Napster, but it includes many useful tips for spotting fakes of any sort.

Along with crimes against the company's bottom line, UGG claims counterfeiters often employ child labor, participate in identity theft and have connections to organized crime. In other words, those aren't snuggly folks making your snuggly boots.

To quell the problem, UGG provides a list of it's authorized online and storefront retailers, as well as images of counterfeit boots. (The anecdotal method of judging simply by the label no longer holds true, unfortunately.) Beginning with the Fall 2010 line, new UGG boots will come with a reflective sticker or sewn-in tag. Tilt the doo-dad and a hologram pops up. Very space-agey, but a quick way to guarantee authenticity.

2. Diamond Jewelry
Fake or imitation jewelry isn't necessarily a bad thing. For many people, it's an attractive option to ungodly priced diamonds and gemstones. You don't, however, want to pay premium and expect something real, only to learn it's synthetic. You'd basically be signing a fraudsters generous paycheck.

As always, be especially careful on the Internet. Before making a buy, watch for stones with overly creative names -- Australian jade is treated quartz, American ruby is garnet -- or those labelled as a "composite," which is usually several gems mashed together. Certification from the Gemological Institute of America or American Gem Society Laboratories is a plus as well. Jewelry wholesalers are especially tricky, so be sure to do careful research and scope our post on buying reliable bling, "Beyond Diamonds: 10 Secrets to Buying Jewelry."

If you make a purchase and have a sick feeling the jewelry is fake, take it to a reliable jeweler. Counterfeiters have a large, bejeweled bag of tricks, but professionals can spot most in seconds.

3. Gold
Similar to diamonds, fake gold jewelry is common because it looks and feels like the genuine article. Most imitation gold does contains some gold, but it's often plate as opposed to solid. The easiest test is to wear your jewelry for several days. If it leaves marks on your skin or begins to fade, you've been duped. Another reliable method is to place a strong magnet on the jewelry. Genuine, solid gold won't be attracted, while the iron and other transient metals in fake stuff will.

You'll also want to avoid jewelry labeled as "gold flashed" or "gold washed," which describes an extremely thin electroplating of gold and will disappear faster than a fake tan.

A word to the wise: Avoid a double-whammy of wasted dough and don't bother with home gold-testing kits. They generally work, but a jeweler can verify authenticity and karat weight for nearly $50 less.

4. Sunglasses
You've likely seen the kiosks at a fair or other outdoor market: Stands of imitation sunglasses sold as mere images of elite brands for hundreds less. You know, the vendor knows, and you expect nothing more. Reflect on that moment and consider it next time you see "authentic" Oakleys or Ray-Bans online for a huge discount. Why would you assume the glasses from a kiosk-like online store are legitimate when you scoffed at obvious fakes on the street?

By and large, it all comes down to buying from dependable sites, like Sunglass Hut. Do your research and hit a brick-and-mortar glasses shop first. You can tell the difference in fit and feel between knock-offs and the real deal, especially with sport-inspired lines like Oakley and Smith. Your best bet is to visit the brand's official website and find where the glasses are manufactured. Almost every high-end brand includes a "made in" label on the frame or packaging. If your pair is missing one or doesn't match up with your research, chances are they're fake. Aside from fit, style and comfort, shoddy glasses might not even have UV protection, which is the reason you're buying them to begin with.

5. Watches
A fake Rolex was arguably the original designer counterfeit. It's so common I know many people who automatically assume a Rolex is fake until proven wrong. As luck would have it, the most iconic watch brand in the world feels the same way. There are plenty of built-in features to an authentic Rolex watch, including precision engraving, minor logo variations and multi-colored movement. Counterfeiters are extremely adept at creating Rolex replicas nowadays, but a Texas-based watch dealer put together a thorough breakdown of tell-tale signs, including pictures.

As for other brands and online purchases, there's a world of watches out there so you may need to forgo frugality and buy direct from a manufacturer's website or authorized dealer. Very few watches come with the intense counterfeit protection of a Rolex. However, the daily-deal website JomaDeals.com sells luxury items one at a time, usually at hefty discounts of 50 percent to 75 percent off. If you're itching for some wrist-bling, scope Joma or check for store-specific watch company free shipping codes.

6. Handbags
Coach is another common target for fraudsters. A recent WalletPop post listed it among the five most-counterfeited brands online; a dubious honor indeed. Understandably, Coach doesn't offer tips on how to spot counterfeits as they could be used to craft more convincing replicas. But real Coach purses and wallets are only sold though brick-and-mortar stores, the Coach catalog, department stores, speciality stores, duty-free locations and the Coach website.

Aside from Coach, nearly every posh name deals with fake designer bags and wallets. Some general rules to follow: High-end labels rarely sell through street vendors, and nearly everything found at one is either fake or stolen. Low-quality leather, fabric or stitching is a dead giveaway for shoddy rip-offs. And to echo nearly every designer website, if a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. Google searches don't discriminate between legitimacy and fraud on leather bags and more.

7. Designer Suits
As with many fakes, the bigger and more in-demand the designer name, the more likely it is to be faked. This rule is no different for menswear, like those found at Jos A Bank. Boss, Armani and Dolce & Gabana are some of the most frequently mimicked. Since suits are more intricate than smaller items, counterfeiters have more room to trip up and give themselves away. Carefully check all tags for misspellings, including the care instructions. If buying online, ask for pictures of the tags if none are available. Also, certain brands have distinguishing marks. For example, real Armani and Boss suits never come with embossed buttons. For other tips, call a local tailor or tuxedo shop and ask for their advice before forking over cash.

8. Luggage
While many argue a designer label is just that -- a label -- luggage is a different story. Do you want your knock-off Samsonite falling apart in the gentle embrace of a baggage handler, only to spew your underwear across the tarmac? Frequent travelers have night terrors about this very situation.

Rolling luggage is the most important to check for authenticity. Look for an aluminum frame, quality double-stitching and a storable handle, preferably one that locks in place. Be wary of 360-degree wheels. Ever since Samsonite introduced them, many lesser brands have imitated the design with low-quality rollers.

9. Perfume
Most fake designer perfume comes close enough to duplicating the elusive scent of expensive brands (minus subtle notes, but we won't go there). But knock-offs lose their scent over time, essentially becoming a useless bottle of water.

Before buying online or in-person, try several legitimate scents. Aside from exploring what smells purdy, you can easily get an idea of perfume color, strength, box design and specifics like liquid weight. Use all these qualities as comparison points before springing for a discounted bottle. Many salesmen will dilute the real thing with water and try to sell the perfume as full strength.

10. NFL Sports Jerseys
The NFL season is in full swing and nearly everyone's holiday shopping list will contain a football fanatic. I've never owned a jersey, solely because they are inordinately expensive. Only league-licensed apparel can be labelled "authentic," meaning they're exact copies of what the players wear. This honor ups the price to nearly $250, while even "replica" jerseys are in the $125 range.

The pages of eBay are choked with fake jerseys, many of which are simply t-shirts that boast shoddy numbers, names and colors. Be wary of anything advertised as league-licensed and selling below the $75 mark. If you want the overpriced..ahem, authentic experience, two features are dead giveaways: The sides and tags. Bona fide jerseys feature spandex along the ribs and are only made in South Korea, El Salvador or Senegal. Check out the NFL shop for some real deals.

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