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Rapid acceleration of coronavirus-related infections and fatalities in countries like Italy, Spain and the United States has led to widespread bans on communal activities, global restrictions on travel and an increasing reliance on virtual interactions. The push to keep people indoors has led to a substantial increase in e-commerce spending. People are becoming increasingly reliant upon these services to provide life’s basic necessities – and counterfeiters are primed to take advantage of this unique opportunity. 

Counterfeiters have long preyed upon consumer vulnerability in order to make a quick profit. The current coronavirus crisis will likely be no different. However, what is unique about the current crisis is the extent to which consumers are relying upon e-commerce platforms.

Crisis drives demand

The recent seizures of counterfeit goods – from skincare products to coronavirus testing kits – by U.S. Customs and Border Protection at LAX and Chicago’s O’Hare airport are proof that the counterfeiters have begun to take advantage of this crisis and the vulnerable populations that have been ensnared in it. 

Prior public health crises provide clues as to what can be expected from the current one. For example, during the Ebola outbreak in 2014, there was no vaccine available to treat infected patients, so health care providers focused on treating the symptoms and related infections that came along with the disease. Counterfeiters worked hard to get fake versions of common medications into the legitimate supply chain, as demand for these goods rose.

The market for fakes expanded beyond medications to target other wellness-centric products, as well, and a similar pattern will almost certainly emerge in connection with the current coronavirus crisis. 

As they have done in the past, counterfeiters will put their efforts into flooding the market with products that are in demand – whether those are coronavirus testing kits and germ-killing hand sanitizers (counterfeit versions are likely to have significantly lessened germ-killing properties) or vitamins and other supplements, and beauty and skincare products, the latter of which are proving to be among some of the popular purchases for home-bound consumers

Risks of e-commerce

Before the coronavirus crisis began, e-commerce services were already under heavy scrutiny from U.S. lawmakers for their lack of action regarding the proliferation of counterfeit products on their platforms, ranging from designer garments and accessories to cellphones and other electronics. The current threat creates a potentially dangerous situation, as consumers seeking products that are in demand yet scarcely available, like hand sanitizer and face masks, may turn to the very venues that are most used by counterfeiters to dupe the unsuspecting public. 

Crisis-driven consumer demand, mixed with waning product inventories, an increasing reliance upon internet-based commerce, and arguably lax platform regulation by e-commerce giants, creates ideal conditions for counterfeiters to thrive. Yet, one of the most dangerous aspects of the current crisis is consumers’ inability to reliably distinguish genuine goods from fake products.

Consumers sometimes have a good ability to identify counterfeit logos when the legitimate brand is well-recognized and the fake logo contains easily identifiable errors. For example, differences in the color or placement of a brand’s logo are one of the most prominent clues that an item is fake. Striking variations in price are also a reliable indication of foul play. 

However, counterfeiters have grown in terms of their sophistication and so, too, has the sophistication of the products they are offering. They have become very adept at producing authentic-looking packaging and logos. And more than that, e-commerce platforms have enabled many bad actors to appear more legitimate than they actually are. 

Still yet, when it comes to testing kits and other coronavirus-related products that are yet to be developed, consumers have no frame of reference upon which they can rely when attempting to determine an item’s legitimacy. That makes it more likely that counterfeit products will proliferate throughout the marketplace during the current crisis.

Consumers are urged to verify the sellers of products found online before making purchases. Sites like Amazon and Walmart Marketplace cater to third parties looking to sell products to consumers. Counterfeiters can take advantage of the anonymity afforded by e-commerce platforms. Moreover, you should verify that the brand you are looking to buy actually sells their products on the site; then verify that the entity advertising the product is the company that actually makes the product. 

To aid in this process, brands can inform consumers about how to buy legitimate products by creating direct links from their official corporate pages to their official e-commerce sites. For companies that sell through distribution, it is essential that they maintain a list of approved vendors, which should be published in a way that is easily accessible to consumers.

Jay Kennedy is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University. (Edits/additions courtesy of TFL)