Nick Taylor

The annual Black Friday shopping surge sees cost-conscious consumers hit the stores and online retailers in search of bargains. Yet some deals really are too good to be true, with counterfeiters keen to exploit shoppers by undercutting legitimate businesses.

With millions of Americans looking for deals, Black Friday represents a big opportunity for counterfeiters. Fraudulent retailers are conscious of consumer trends, particularly the obsession with certain brands, and aim to exploit these desires. The Better Business Bureau list of the top 10 most common counterfeit gifts shows this strategy, with fraudulent retailers selling lots of fake shoes, handbags, smartphones and DVDs.

While a genuine Coach handbag is too expensive for many consumers, counterfeit versions are far more affordable. These fakes attract unwitting consumers who believe they are buying a genuine product for a bargain price. In these cases, sophisticated websites, some of which feature fake SSL security certificates, make it hard for consumers to tell the difference between genuine and fraudulent retailers.

"Business-savvy counterfeiters are pricing products just below their authentic counterparts, leading consumers to think they've found a better deal. As such, it's important for consumers to research every merchant before making a purchase, and understand that the safest course of action is to buy directly from the manufacturer rather than a third party," Neil Alpert, CEO of LaserLock Technologies, said.

Signs that the site is selling fakes include the use of terms like 'factory overstock' to justify prices that just undercut the recommended retail price. The Better Business Bureau advises consumers to shop on well-known websites, officially-licensed organizations or direct from the manufacturer. Consumers should take particular care when buying brand-name products from sites like eBay that make pre-inspection difficult.

The consequences of buying a fake product are potentially far reaching. Counterfeit cosmetics are unlikely to have been properly tested and may contain dangerous chemicals, putting the user's skin at risk. Similarly, fake electronics pose a fire hazard.

The knowing buyers of counterfeit goods

Following the Better Business Bureau tips can help prevent unwitting purchases of counterfeits, but these buyers only make up a proportion of shoppers. Others are happy to knowingly buy fakes. An EU survey of 26,500 people aged 15 and over found one-third of people think buying fakes is justified by the cost savings, while even more view it as a legitimate protest against the market-driven economy.

The result is perhaps surprising as the same survey found Europeans value intellectual property (IP). Almost everyone surveyed said IP is important because it supports innovation and creativity by rewarding inventors, creators and artists. Similarly, 86 per cent of respondents agreed that protecting IP helps to improve the quality of products and services. Yet some of these people will buy fakes to save money.

In these cases, stopping counterfeiting at the source is an effective way of preventing sales. Technology is facilitating these anti-counterfeiting strategies. "Companies are leveraging cutting-edge technologies to trace the movement of and authenticate products, as well as verify the identities of those who are managing the products through every stage of the supply and demand chains," Alpert said.

Consumer beware: Counterfeiters keen to exploit Black Friday sales