Will you fall for Santa frauds Britain flooded by “designer” Christmas gifts that are actually dangerous fakes
One wonders how many Christmases Peter Herron might have ruined this year. But, as far as he’s concerned, the more the merrier.
A senior officer in the Border Agency counterfeit team at Heathrow, he has spent the past month intercepting box upon box of luxury gifts bound for UK homes.
Along the way, he has come across something for all the family.
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For her Trendy friendship bracelets from Links of London, Mont Blanc fountain pens, Cath Kidston handbags, Ugg boots, make-up from fashionable brands such as Mac and Bobbi Brown and Jo Malone scented candles. For him: everything from Rolex watches to all the latest gizmos such as the iPad 2 and iPhone 4.
Then there are the children — Hello Kitty jewellery boxes, the latest Nintendo DS, soft toys from TV show In The Night Garden, Smurfs and familiar faces from Thomas the Tank Engine, to name but a few.
All are copies of the real thing and were destined to nestle beneath any number of British Christmas trees if they hadn’t been stopped by Peter and his team.
‘This has been our busiest year yet,’ he says. ‘We are making seizures every day and across a huge range of goods.
The majority are coming from China, where 70 per cent of counterfeit products are made. They’re also coming from India, Turkey, Indonesia and Thailand, which is especially known for its fake football shirts.’
With money tight and shoppers on the hunt for a bargain, 2011 is clearly proving to be the worst counterfeit Christmas so far with millions of pounds worth of goods seized.
In the past few days alone, the Heathrow team has stopped two consignments of fake Dr Dre headphones, which retail at 250 and are one of this year’s must-buy presents for designer-crazy teenagers — a haul with a street value of more than 38,000.
But this is small fry compared with some of the other recent seizures. Fake goods have been flooding into all the major airports and ports in the lead-up to December 25.
One of the biggest hauls was found at Southampton docks — 45,000 pairs of fake UGG boots, the largest such seizure in Europe with a street value of several million pounds.
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Staff at the port of Dover, meanwhile, rumbled a consignment of fake toys back in October — all purporting to be top-selling brands such as Disney, Hello Kitty and Thomas the Tank Engine. They were worth 50,000.
The team at Heathrow has also been far busier than last year, when they uncovered 5.9 million items in 22,125 seizures. The total value of goods seized in the past 12 months already exceeds 2010’s figure of 10 million.
Some of this would inevitably have been sold online to unsuspecting members of the public, keen to make savings on High Street prices.
Astudy by Which magazine found 23 per cent of fake goods were bought from websites including online giants Amazon and eBay, although there isno suggestion these companies will have been aware they were not genuine.
In other cases, bogus websites with addresses ending in ‘.co.uk’ are a front for counterfeiters sending products from Hong Kong.
AtCoventry International Postal Hub, next to the Midlands airport, smaller parcels containing fake goods are intercepted on a daily basis.
Thevast majority of these have been bought online by consumers — more often than not in good faith — and shipped to the UK from abroad. Suspect goods are seized and if proved counterfeit, destroyed, leaving the consumer out of pocket, often to the tune of hundreds of pounds.
Thecost to the economy is even greater, not just in terms of lost income to genuine retailers, but also to State coffers, as no tax or VAT is paid.
Such is the extent of the problem, seven per cent of all goods sold in the UK are believed to be counterfeit, according to the Intellectual Property Office, which regulates trademarks.
In a survey carried out by Which, one in ten people had bought a fake product without realising it.
But,looking at the spread of goods seized at Heathrow over the past few weeks, it’s easy to see why. Often, the packaging is so realistic, it’s virtually impossible for experts to tell the difference — let alone the consumer.
Take a Blackadder DVD box set, which retails for 39.99. The only discernible difference in the packaging is the fact there is a tiny error in the graphics on the box.
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Likewise,the Dr Dre headphones are carefully presented in a box which is identical to the real thing, even illustrated with the same photo of Justin Bieber. But the eagle-eyed Heathrow team spotted a spelling mistake in the blurb on the side of the box which set off alarm bells.
‘Weget these headphones almost every day as they are so popular this year,’ says Peter Herron’s colleague, Grant Miller, senior detection manager of the freight division at Heathrow.
‘The criminal gangs behind this are very clever. They constantly keep ahead of demand and can turn around a new gadget within two weeks of it hitting the market, and in some cases,even before the genuine article goes on sale. This is a carefully orchestrated industry.’
But while the fakes may look almost identical to the real thing, the quality is rarely the same.
‘Thecounterfeit headphones would have sold for almost the same as the retail price but are unlikely to last past Boxing Day,’ says Grant.
Ditto the replica iPhones and BlackBerrys, which also look the part but don’t have the correct software and come with chargers that would fail EU safety checks.
Copiesof friendship bracelets from Links of London — the jewellery brand beloved of Kate Middleton — are new this year. Only a small number have been detected so far, probably because the counterfeiters are testing the market. If the fake bracelets do well, more will arrive.
CathKidston is another UK brand under attack. Knock-down versions of her distinctive printed bags have started to pop up on online auction sites and market stalls. The copy I saw at Heathrow felt cheap and had a nastyplastic lining.
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Jo Malone’s distinctive luxury scented candles are also being copied. These come in an identical box, but the candles are not just cheap imitations, they are dangerous.
‘The glass has been shown to explode when the candle is lit, so the danger of injury to anyone buying these is very high,’ stresses Christine Heemskerk, lead officer in consumer and product safety for the Trading Standards Institute.
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As the case of the exploding candles vividly demonstrates, the risks posed to consumers by this glut of counterfeit goods are not just financial.
Many of the copies would fail safety tests put in place to protect us. Few, if any, will have been made to EU standards.
TheMac eye make-up, meanwhile, may not have been made in a sterile environment and could contain banned ingredients.
‘These could cause a rash at best and be carcinogenic at worst,’ says Christine. ‘It’s not something you’d want to give your teenage daughter.’
Even the cuddly toys are not as harmless as they look.
‘TheSmurfs are not made to EU standards,’ she says. ‘I would be worried about the seams coming open and the stuffing coming out, as this presents a choking hazard.’
She has similar concerns about a cuddly Tombliboo, a character from the BBC’s In The Night Garden.
‘Hiseyes may come off, the material could be flammable and it could containdangerous chemicals,’ warns Christine.
So as most of us finish our Christmas shopping in earnest, Peter
Herronand his teams will continue to be vigilant. ‘The next few weeks will bebusy,’ he says, but you can tell he relishes the challenge.
Beforehe goes, he reiterates the Christmas message from the Border Agency onemore time: if the price is too good to be true, it probably is.
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The 12 fakes of Christmas
The exploding candle
Counterfeit Jo Malone scented candles. RRP of the genuine product: 76
‘The glass has been shown to explode when the candle is lit so there is a serious risk of injury,’ says Christine Heemskerk. ‘They could also contain banned ingredients.’
The poisonous playset
Hello Kitty jewellery box (RRP: 9), lamp (RRP: 10) and headphones (RRP: 37)
This candy-coloured range is popular with young pre-teen girls, but the fakes could turn out to be not so cute.
‘It is likely the jewellery box is made using phthalates, which means there are health concerns,’ warns Christine.
‘The headphones probably won’t have the right volume controls and could damage young ears.
‘The lamp is a fire risk — the shade could melt — and the wiring is suspect.’
The dud headphones
Beats by Dr Dre headphones. RRP: 250
Fake copies of these designer headphones are flooding the market. Grant Miller warns: ‘They’re unlikely to last until Boxing Day.’
The toxic charm bracelet
Pandora charm bracelet. RRP: 65 for bracelet, 30 per charm.
‘We have intercepted both the bracelets and boxes of fake charms,’ says Grant of these fake Pandora products, which are popular with teenagers. These could leak nickel, a toxic metal which can cause skin allergies.
The overheating hair set
ghd Precious Limited Edition Gift Set. RRP: 165.
This hair straightener and hairdryer have not been tested to meet EU standards, points out Christine. They could overheat and the user could get burnt.
The bracelet that’ll cause a rash
Links of London friendship bracelet. RRP: 145
These copies of the fashionable friendship bracelets are not sterling silver like the originals and may contain banned metals. These could cause a rash, warns Christine.
The fake designer pens
Mont Blanc fountain pen (RRP: 405); rollerball pen (RRP: 310)
‘The pens have a similar feel and weight to the real thing, but we can tell by the quality of the nib that they are not genuine,’ says Grant.
The unsafe safety reins
Little Life dinosaur animal daysack RRP: 20
rucksacks with a parent safety rein attached are popular with those who have toddlers. But the fixings of the cheap imitations may break. ‘It could give the parent a false sense of security that the child is safe,’ says Christine
The rip-off disney DVDs
Walt Disney complete DVD set. RRP: 179
‘These DVDs will be poor quality. The box is cheap with a lightweight clasp,’ says Grant.
The dangerously dyed bag
Cath Kidston Day bag. RRP: 48
The PVC used to make this rip-off Cath Kidston day bag could well contain chemicals banned in the UK and azodyes (synthetic colours) which are carcinogenic, warns Christine.
The dodgy make-up kit
Bobbi Brown make-up brush set. RRP: 139.
Grant suspects the handles of these fake make-up brushes are made using wood from the ramin tree, an endangered species found in Indonesia and Malaysia. ‘This wood is easy to work with and is often used for products with a quick turnaround,’ he says.
The ‘ugg’ boots made in a sweatshop
UGG Australia boots. RRP: 255
‘The UGG Australia logo disc on the sole has been added later with glue,’ says Grant.
‘This is a common trick counterfeiters use. They send the boots in one consignment and the buttons or labels in another to avoid detection, and the boots are then assembled in a UK sweatshop.’