Forget the fake Rolex watches sold on street corners. These days, most counterfeits are sold over the Internet, right into your home. And some of them could seriously hurt you.
Take bicycle helmets. If you don't use one, you probably have a child or relative who does. Bike helmets are meant to protect us if we ever have a serious fall.
But counterfeits won't provide that protection.
At Specialized Bicycles, they've seen the evidence. The headquarters is in Morgan Hill, Calif. — about 30 miles south of Silicon Valley. That's where Clint Mattacola spends all day testing the company's bike helmets to make sure they exceed federal safety standards.
He sees fake helmets all the time. For instance, he points to two black helmets. One is an authentic Specialized Evade II, and the other is a counterfeit helmet. "They look very, very similar," Mattacola says.
On the outside, they're identical. But inside, they are very different. Mattacola proves it by running both helmets through the safety tests in his lab.
He straps a helmet to a dummy's head and tests to see if it can be pulled off; if the straps stay in place; if it will protect against a crash.
The authentic helmet passes all the tests.
The counterfeit fails the first two tests. But the third failure is the worst. That final test measures how well the helmet holds up if you took a header into the curb. The helmet is strapped onto a machine that lifts it five feet, then slams it against a curved anvil.
Mattacola picks up the two pieces of the fake helmet that has broken in half. If a cyclist had fallen the same way wearing that same counterfeit helmet, Mattacola says, "their skull would have hit the surface. Most likely would have suffered from skull fracture, brain damage or death."
How can you identify a counterfeit? For one thing, the plastic fit retention device on the fake helmet is often made of cheap, stiff plastic with a bulky ratchet dial, compared with the real helmet, Specialized says. If you weighed it, the counterfeit Evade helmet is 45 grams lighter than the authentic one. The foam is four millimeters thinner than on the real Evade. And the counterfeit lacks a reinforcement roll cage — an internal fiber skeleton that holds the helmet intact in the event of an impact.
The company says the fakes often have logos relating to European standards, but they do not carry the interior stickers that indicate the helmets meet U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission standards.
Mattacola was contacted by a rider who complained that his helmet didn't fit properly. So Mattacola responded, "'Well, where did you buy it?' He said, 'I bought it on eBay.' I immediately said, 'Well, it's a counterfeit.' I didn't even have to see the helmet. He says, 'Well how do you know?' I go, 'What does the sizing say on it?' He says, 'it says: Asia Sizing.' And I said, 'It's a counterfeit. You bought it on eBay. It's an Asian Fit sizing. It's a counterfeit.' "
Finally, price can sometimes be a giveaway. Many deals on e-commerce websites offer counterfeit Specialized helmets for $50 when the real ones cost $200 to $250. But unscrupulous merchants will also sell fakes for only slightly less than the official retail price, so buyers don't think it's too good to be true.
Some consumer advice extends beyond just fake helmets.
William Ross is the deputy assistant director for the Homeland Security Investigations-led National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center, which brings together 23 partner agencies to fight all kinds of counterfeits. The fakes can range from knock-off air bags for cars to fake components used by the Department of Defense.
"It used to be that most of the drugs you would see online are what we would call the 'lifestyle drugs.' We're now seeing cancer medications, heart medications, true lifesaving medications which are being counterfeited and sold online," Ross says.
Nationally, Customs now confiscates almost twice as many counterfeits as it did 10 years ago. Ross says that because of e-commerce, "we're seeing a lot of smaller packages come in." In 2017, 90 percent of the counterfeits seized by the feds came through express shipments or the international mail.
"I would say to the consumer, beware of what you are buying and where you are buying it from," Ross says. "Buy from legitimate outlets, whether it's in-person or online. What you're buying online could be counterfeit and could potentially hurt or kill you."
Companies like Specialized are fighting back.
Andrew Love leads a team of 14 at Specialized who monitor 85 e-commerce websites around the world. Hunched over his laptop computer, Love says, "right now, in the helmet category on eBay — selling directly from China to the United States — 34,582 listings."
Love says e-commerce sites will remove counterfeits once they've been identified.
The Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba has developed technology to weed out the fakes even before they are flagged by the targeted companies.
Spokesperson Brion Tingler says the company's technology "proactively monitors the Alibaba platforms, which have over a billion listings at any one point in time. And it's constantly scouring for things that would potentially be fake goods. We're proactively removing 27 times more listings than we have reported to us by rights holders."
Some merchants will just turn around, open new accounts and start selling counterfeits again. For repeat offenders, Andrew Love at Specialized goes after their money in court. "We've seized millions of dollars doing that. It's been very effective. And I get hate mail every now and then in Chinese."
Sometimes Specialized works with its business partners overseas, including Alibaba. "With the bicycle helmet, for example," Tingler says. "It's being created in a real factory by real people. To stop that, the best way to do that is to go after the source. Which is the factory that it's being produced in."
Last year, the companies went after counterfeit manufacturers in China. Specialized worked with Alibaba and Chinese police to close down four factories.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Toronto has been called the raccoon capital of the world. And if you know anything about trash pandas, as they're not so affectionately known, you know this, they'll do anything to get your leftovers. The Canadian raccoons were so adept at getting into trash cans that a few years back, the city of Toronto spent more than $20 million on new cans that were meant to outsmart the critters. Spoiler alert - things did not go as planned. What happened next is the subject of a 6,000-word investigation by the Toronto Star and staff reporter Amy Dempsey, who joins us now. Welcome.
AMY DEMPSEY: Thank you.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You write that a simple inquiry turned into an accidental investigation. So where does this story begin?
DEMPSEY: It began in January when I got a message from a friend saying the new green bins have eliminated the raccoon population in Toronto. This friend hadn't seen the family of raccoons that had been living in his yard. Friends of his hadn't seen their raccoons.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And the idea is that these raccoon families might have been starving because they couldn't get into the trash cans anymore.
DEMPSEY: Yes. And so I reached out to Toronto's foremost raccoon expert, probably the world's foremost raccoon expert, Suzanne MacDonald. I wrote to her saying, are the raccoons starving? She, unbeknownst to me, had been getting a lot of inquiries from people asking the same question. And she had been measuring and weighing dead raccoons since about a year before the green bin rollout started to see whether their body mass index changed. So I asked if I could go with her, and that's where it started.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This got personal for you pretty fast. You launched your own hidden camera investigation.
DEMPSEY: I did. I mean, one week I went outside and found that my neighbor's green bin had been toppled over and was open. So I texted her and said, you know, your green bin has been breached. And I sort of blamed it on her a little bit. I said, you must have left it unlocked because the raccoons - they can't get into these things. And then they started getting into mine. And it became very clear that they were opening them somehow. These bins, when you tip them to 110 degrees, open automatically. So Suzanne MacDonald, the raccoon expert, loaned me a trail camera, and I began performing surveillance in my laneway.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) And in the end, you wrote it only took three nights and two chickens to find out the truth, which was...
DEMPSEY: The truth was there is at least one raccoon in my neighborhood who can open the green bins. Now, the city said, you know, your bin might be loose. Allow us to replace your bin. So it was replaced. And then the raccoons got into the second bin and then the city came back and said, well actually, we think there might be something wrong with the second bin that you've had. It's pretty clear that some of the raccoons can get in. And they simply knock them over and turn the handle just as we do.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. So what is your takeaway? Are raccoons sort of smarter than humans? Are we making a super raccoon that will take over Toronto at some point?
DEMPSEY: They're definitely not smarter than us. Some of them are really dumb. Like, I definitely have footage of raccoons who just crawl all over it for a little while and then slink away. But some of them - it is amazing how smart they seem to be. One of the videos I captured, the raccoon just walks up to the bin, pulls it right down and it lands with a bang. And then she turns and looks directly at the camera, almost as if to say, ha, you can't stop me. You can't stop me.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter). Amy Dempsey, an investigative reporter at the Toronto Star on the raccoon beat. Thank you so much.
DEMPSEY: Thank you.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And FYI, raccoon expert Suzanne MacDonald, told the Toronto Star that her research is ongoing, but the raccoons are, quote, "not starving to death - that's for sure." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.