Modern shoppers have retained a primal trait – hunting and the hunting season gathers pace every year on Black Friday easing towards Christmas.

In an indoorsy environment of the safe suburbs, shoppers follow the scent of a sale and hunt for deals and discounts. Some who evolved, choosing convenience over crowds, have moved on to online territories where unbeknown to them, new dangers lurk.

Internet’s global pervasiveness and relative anonymity makes it possible for anyone to sell nearly anything at any time. Counterfeiters, the predators of the World Wide Web, know this only too well and are increasingly exploiting the unlimited opportunities presented by e-commerce.

Proceed to checkout with caution when buying online warns leading international intellectual property law firm Spoor & Fisher.

For many cash strapped consumers, deep discounts offered by online retailers are a blessing in disguise, but the products can pose serious risks to the users’ health and safety. Also most people don’t realise that when they buy counterfeits, they could be supporting organised crime syndicates (OCS) and, in most cases, indirectly, child and forced labour.

“Counterfeiting has become very attractive for OCS, it doesn’t attract much scrutiny nor hefty penalties in other African countries. With authorities focusing on the drug and arms trade, counterfeiters operate in relative obscurity,” says Paul Ramara, Partner, Spoor & Fisher.

Online marketplaces have shown tremendous double digit growth and counterfeits have been riding on the coattails ever since. Market research firm Euromonitor International has estimated that e-commerce will become the largest retail channel in the world by 2021, accounting for 14% of total retail sales.

Counterfeiters are exploiting the fact that it is impossible to touch, feel and examine the product when shopping online, a predisposition that many buyers have when checking for quality. Without examination of the physical product, buyers have to make the purchasing decision solely based on what they see on the screen. Therein lies the chink in e-commerce’s armour.

Some of the websites selling counterfeits are so sophisticated that it is hard to detect that they are scams. Counterfeiters are also exploiting mobile technologies, developing apps to attract a new market. Users are less likely to question the legitimacy of an app, especially if it appears in an official app store. Moreover, they have also upped their marketing game and use advanced techniques such as paid search ads, search engine optimisation, unsolicited emails or the use of branded terms in domain names.

Online marketplaces might be an obvious source of potential fraud, but the growing popularity of social media is also creating a rise in sales of counterfeit fashion on platforms like Instagram.

According to Ghost Data, nearly 20% of all posts about fashion products on Instagram feature counterfeit products. The study identified more than 50,000 accounts promoting and selling counterfeits, a 171% increase since its 2016 study. These counterfeit fashion accounts, which are mostly focused on knocking off luxury fashion, are extremely active – they’ve cumulatively added more than 65 million posts to Instagram, and their activity averages about 1.6 million Instagram Stories a month.

“With the holiday season upon us, the likelihood of consumers going online to make last minute purchases and most certainly buying a counterfeit product accidentally or knowingly increases exponentially,” says Ramara.

“Learning how to identify scam websites selling counterfeit goods is vital to protect yourself and those around you from this growing threat.”

These tips should help decrease your chances of getting scammed into buying a counterfeit:

  • Is the website genuine? – Like retail outlets, buyers also have favourite e-commerce sites. At the outset invest time in checking if the contact numbers are genuine, the address is real and if they have a dedicated email address to handle queries. Go ahead and test it.
  • Read feedback on social media on how the company handles complaints and if it responds. This way you can learn from other people’s mistakes.
  • Try to visit a store to look at the product you intend to buy for example, a shoe. This way you will know where the logo is placed, the stitching etc, the finer details will immediately serve as a visual aid when buying online.
  • Labels and logos – Misspelled brand names, poorly copied logos are giveaways.
  • If a product you ordered from say Instagram turns out to be a counterfeit, share the details with IG with a request to investigate the offending advertiser.
  • Lastly, the rule of thumb applies, if the offer is too good to be true, it probably is.

“Counterfeits were once immediately recognisable but over time it has become so sophisticated that many consumers end up buying a fake product for almost the same price as the original,” says Ramara in conclusion.

This article was first published in the Star.