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DHS seeing increase in counterfeit products sold in WA during pandemic

In this Feb. 23, 2018, file photo, a ship carrying four of the West Coast's largest container cranes passes through Puget Sound in view of Seattle and headed to Tacoma, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Another negative side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic can be added to the already long list — the Department of Homeland Security has seen an increase since the pandemic began in counterfeit goods being smuggled into Washington and sold.

Robert Hammer, special agent in charge for the Department of Homeland Security Investigations’ Pacific Northwest division, says counterfeiters are exploiting the pandemic-induced supply chain disruptions to fill the market with illegitimate goods.

“Over the past year, we’ve seen such an increase in these organizations trying to take advantage of the COVID pandemic,” he said. “When there’s a shortage of products, that creates opportunities for the counterfeiters to fill that void.”

He noted that with the pandemic’s financial crisis, people whose pocketbooks are hurting may also be more willing to order products that are cheaper than the name brand because they are counterfeit — whether or not the buyers realize it.

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The goods often come into the country hidden on container ships at the Port of Seattle. Whenever possible, DHS and local law enforcement try to cut it off right at the port, to prevent the items from infiltrating the supply chain. Once they’re out and about in society, Hammer explained that it becomes much harder to track each individual item down.

“It just takes not even the container, one box within that container, to contain counterfeit items. And once that gets through, it’s in the supply chain and the distribution network in the United States,” he said. “That’s why we really work hard to identify these shipments before they get into the supply chain.”

Counterfeit products can often be dangerous because they don’t have to go through the same safety checks as lawfully-produced items. This is especially true of counterfeit sporting goods — and between the pandemic’s product scarcity and the increasing numbers of people wanting to get outdoors after quarantine, sporting goods are one of the most common categories of items Hammer is seeing being sold illegally right now.

He explained that some people don’t see the harm in buying a counterfeit product that is seemingly innocuous, such as a paddleboard or baseball — but when safety standards are not met, there is a large risk.

“People are like, ‘What do you care about a counterfeit baseball bat or a counterfeit bat?'” Hammer said. “But the potential for injury, the potential for there to be a physical victim behind these things, is there.”

He pointed to the helmet that his son wears when playing baseball.

“I trust that that thing is going to be able to absorb a ball to the head if he gets hit with it,” Hammer said. “And if it’s a substandard product or counterfeit or hasn’t been certified and doesn’t meet the Little League specifications, then he’s at risk.”

Beauty products and car parts are also big in the counterfeit world right now, and can also be very dangerous — containing toxic chemicals or causing your car to crash, respectively — if they haven’t jumped through the proper hoops.

Even before the pandemic, social media and online shopping were contributing to an increase in counterfeit products in recent years. Ordering a counterfeit item can be as easy as going on Craigslist and making a Venmo payment from your phone.

The way to counteract this, Hammer said, is to do your homework when shopping on the internet, by researching the company and reading reviews. If the seller has no reviews yet, you may want to give them a pass until you can verify that they are legitimate. It’s also wise to keep a healthy dose of skepticism — if a price seems too good to be true, it probably is.

“The biggest thing that I would say is, know your vendor – buy from reputable online places,” he advised. “Do your research. Make sure that the vendor has purchase protection, that you’re not buying from a guy around the corner trying to sell you a product at a price that’s unbelievable.”

If you come across an item that you believe is counterfeit, call the DHS tip line at 866-347-2423.

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