Coming out of lockdown: Six warning signs to spot illegitimate face masks & hand sanitizers

Coming out of lockdown: Six warning signs to spot illegitimate face masks & hand sanitizers

With huge global demand for face masks and hand sanitizers, bad actors are looking to exploit cons sumers and sell fakeonline. Find out the six warning signs to spot illegitimate products.

The coronavirus has revealed the best and the worst in humanity. Heroic efforts by healthcare workers and volunteers can be seen across the globe. However, with the World Health Organization (WHO) now recommending the widespread use of face masks, these efforts are being undermined by online bad actors exploiting demand.

As countries begin to ease their lockdown restrictions, consumers seek to purchase hygiene products such as face masks and hand sanitizers to protect themselves and others around them as they return to the workplace and physical stores. Many of these purchases are still taking place online, putting consumers at risk of receiving illegitimate and counterfeit products. As of June 1, US authorities have seized nearly 900,000 COVID-19-related counterfeits and non-genuine products that put consumers at risk. And in China, authorities have confiscated a staggering 31 million counterfeit face masks since the start of the crisis.

Independent market research commissioned by Incopro found that, of 1,000 US consumers, 34% of said fake pharmaceutical products pose the greatest threat to consumers today. 83% of respondents said they look for warning signs when shopping online. 31% said they compare prices with going market rates as price is seen to be the biggest indicator of how to spot counterfeit goods, as something too good to be true usually is. But once you move beyond price it starts to get more complicated.

While consumers consider the legitimacy of a website (25%), read customer reviews (45%), and look at the country of the product/ seller (32%) when evaluating products online, there is no escaping the fact that people are being put at great risk.


    Talisman, Incopro’s Brand Protection platform, discovered a 270% increase in listings of non-genuine hygiene products such as hand sanitizers and hygiene wipes that are untested, unregulated and likely to be ineffective. Many of these products contained false claims about being able to kill the coronavirus or protection against contracting the disease.

    Talisman also discovered over 1,150 social media posts in one week linking to websites and storefronts selling poor-quality respiratory masks that exploit concerned members of the public. Poor-quality face masks are not tested and are unlikely to prevent spread or contraction of the virus.

  • Furthermore, there has been an explosion in lookalike brands ripping off established brands health-related products, and unregulated sellers offering medicines at inflated prices that is unlikely to be genuine product.

    Consumers are unlikely to be aware of the scale of counterfeiting threat posed by the exploitative bad actors and it is becoming increasingly harder to spot the real deal online.

    The sheer volume of illegitimate goods highlights the challenge facing brands and consumers during this health crisis. It also displays the alarming ease in which can infiltrate the digital channels consumers rely on.

    In this guide, we’ll explain how to spot illegitimate healthcare and medical equipment online by looking out for six key warning signs.

1. Prices that are too good to be true

A hallmark sign of any counterfeit product is that it costs a fraction of the price of the genuine article and yet “appears” to be identical.

Fraudsters use inferior, unregulated materials to create these “replicas” which costs them next to nothing in production and marketing costs but puts consumers at great risk.

Remember, if the price of an item is way below market value, sold by an independent seller and discounted by 60-80%, chances are it’s not real. With prices of products such as hand sanitizer increasing by the day as supply struggles to keep up with demand, products that are markedly cheaper will stick out immediately.

2. An untrusted or suspicious website

When consumers can’t find an agreeable price for a product on a brand’s own website, most will turn to other third-party sites or marketplaces to find the best deals.

It’s for this reason that online marketplaces have become a hotbed for counterfeit sellers, steering customers to their own products by undercutting the prices of the legitimate items.

Before making a purchase on a website you don’t recognize, paste the web address into a domain checking tool such as Whois Lookup to find out where the seller or company is located. If the address is not listed or has been left out, that should raise suspicion.

If the website has any grammatical or spelling errors, that too should sound alarm bells too, especially if there are any errors in the website URL or the product information. Often, bad actors try to deceive buyers by changing the spelling of a well-known brand or shop and including it in the website address.

Where possible, only buy directly from a brand’s website as this will ensure security and quality of product.

3. Customer reviews

Customer reviews help online shoppers ascertain the validity of a certain seller, providing the confidence they need to shop on certain websites.

However, counterfeiters populate fake reviews using bots to artificially increase their ratings – particularly on marketplaces. Independent review sites such as Which? and Trustpilot are the best sources of legitimate reviews.

Consumers should look at how many reviews the product has, its average rating, and if anyone says it feels cheap and fake.

Seller profiles can be another way to check the legitimacy of products. Checking where the seller comes from and if they have their own reviews from previous buyers can help spot a fake before it’s too late.

4. Country

It’s estimated that 80% of the world’s counterfeit goods currently in circulation in the world’s largest markets have been exported from China. Behind China are countries such as Turkey, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia.

Over the last couple of years, both government and online marketplaces in China have adopted a tougher stance against counterfeiters and other types of brand abuse. As a result, many of the bad actors operating out of China that once frequented platforms such as Taobao and Aliexpress have now moved their operations to western marketplaces such as Amazon who have taken a less aggressive approach.

Taking this into account, it is essential that consumers check where the seller is based or where the product is coming from.

5. Imagery

According to Gregg Marrazzo, senior vice president and deputy general counsel of Estee Lauder Companies Inc, the only way to guarantee purchase an authentic product is “at authorized stores and counters”.

With a large percentage of the US population now working from home and social distancing measures in place, this is clearly not always feasible. The problem is that counterfeit goods can “quite often appear to be authentic”, Marrazzo states, so consumers shopping online need to carefully check the details.

When purchasing products from online marketplaces, see if there are any images of labels, receipts, country of manufacture and the design of the product. Also look out for low-quality photography and images that have been lifted from other websites or listings.

6. Item description

Finally, the item description – an area where fraudsters often accidentally leave key clues that a product might not be genuine.

Buyers should always check the product description, especially in instances where they are uncertain or skeptical of a seller or website – perhaps the item has a significant discount, or the seller is based in one of the main counterfeit-producing countries as mentioned above.

Carefully analyzing the product description of the fraudulent product and cross-referencing it with the legitimate product will reveal inconsistencies or a complete lack of certain information.

Counterfeit listings are unlikely to contain the full list of ingredients and will often make no reference to the product meeting consumer safety standards.

Consumers cannot act alone

Although these factors are all key indicators of illegitimate and counterfeit goods being sold during the coronavirus crisis, this is not an exhaustive list and the growing sophistication of criminal operators is making it increasingly difficult for consumers to spot them.

Consumers should not be expected to take responsibility for weeding out the fakes among the real. Instead, a concerted, joint effort is required from government and global health authorities, brands, and platforms.

Learn about our mission to protect businesses and consumers by forming a united front against online criminals.

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