By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan contributor
updated 12/2/2009 4:11:47 PM ET 2009-12-02T21:11:47

All counterfeit products are illegal. But counterfeit electronics are not just illegal, they are dangerous.

“These things can kill you,” says Brett Brenner, president of the Electrical Safety Foundation, an industry-funded organization based in Rosslyn, Va. "A counterfeit purse or a CD isn't going to hurt you. But a counterfeit electrical product will hurt you.”

The danger with these copy cat electrical items isn’t obvious. In many cases they look just like the original. But because they are not made to the same standards and are not tested for safety, they might start a fire or electrocute someone.

Brenner has a growing collection of counterfeits purchased across the country: batteries, hair dryers, cell phone chargers, power strips and extension cords.

The extension cords usually have undersize wire and substandard insulation. Brenner showed me video of what can happen when one of these inferior extension cords is plugged in.

It’s pretty scary. The copper heated up so quickly it melted through the plastic insulation and caught fire.

“If there were any combustibles around that, it definitely would have caused a house fire,” Brenner says.

Agents with U.S. Customs and Border Protection do their best to find the fakes before they make it to market. But they can only check a small number of the incoming shipments. Even so, they seized nearly $23 million worth of counterfeit electronics last year. That's up 43 percent from 2007. And from all indications this year will be even worse.

Bogus safety seals
Counterfeit electronics often have fake safety seals to make them look legitimate. In the U.S., that usually means a bogus UL mark. It makes you think the product meets Underwriters Laboratories strict safety standards, when in reality it has not been tested.

Various products have been found with counterfeit UL marks, including: lighting fixtures, portable lamps and ceiling fans, battery chargers and night lights.

Christmas lights are the perfect product for counterfeiting – high volume and low manufacturing cost. UL recently issued a warning about icicle lights sporting a fake UL symbol. These lights can shock you or overheat and cause a fire.

John Drengenberg, director of consumer affairs at Underwriters Labs, tells me less than 1 percent of the 19 billion UL marks on consumer products are not legitimate. But he says even one is too many.

“We take this very seriously,” Drengenberg says.

In July, UL released a new safety seal – a gold foil hologram – to replace the silver holographic mark counterfeiters are now able to copy.

“This label is very much like U.S. currency,” Drengenberg explains. "It's got color-shifting ink in it. It's got the UL logo floating in the background because it's a holographic label. And we also have a lot of hidden information in the label that we can use for anti-counterfeiting measures."

UL requires manufactures to use the new gold foil seal on a number of items that are popular with counterfeiters. These include: extension cords, power strips, surge protectors, holiday lights, decorative ornaments, night lights and ceiling fans. The foil must be attached to product, not the package. It will take some time for the transition to take place, but I’ve already seen UL’s gold foil on several products.

Not all fake electronics are sold directly to the consumer. Counterfeit electrical components – wire, wall receptacles and circuit breakers – are a serious and growing problem for contractors.

John Maisel, publisher of “Electrical Contractor” magazine calls it “a deadly serious issue.” He says the fires started by fake electrical parts cause billions of dollars in property damage each year.

“It is extremely difficult to spot a counterfeit,” Maisel says. “The people who are doing this are not amateurs. They can make their fakes look almost indistinguishable from the real thing. You won’t know until it’s too late.”

Tracy Garner knows all too well the seriousness of the problem. She is manager of anti-counterfeits at Schneider Electric, the global electronics manufacturer that makes the Square D brand circuit breakers which are widely used in home construction. She sees bogus breakers that look just like the real ones, but don’t perform like them.

“We tested these counterfeits and found that they are inferior,” she says. “In some cases, they provide no protection at all.”

If a breaker doesn’t trip and shut off when it’s supposed to, the result can be an explosion or fire.

Since April 2006, Schneider Electric has sued 40 companies it claims sell fake Square D breakers. Most are located in the United State, but the company also conducts raids in China and works to educate contractors about the importance of buying from authorized dealers.

“When people go outside the authorized channels,” Garner warns, “is when you run into situations where you get a counterfeit.”

Garner says homeowners who hire an electrician should ask to see where the parts were purchased.

How to protect yourself
It isn’t always easy to spot a counterfeit. But you can reduce your chances of buying one.

If you spot a fake electrical product, report it to the company and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

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