ABC News' Becky Worley reports:
Handbags are hot. They can cost thousands of dollars, and some women save for months to afford a coveted bag. So to get a deal, purse aficionados comb online retailers for discounts. But a new wave of sophisticated counterfeiters are creating online sites that look almost identical to the authentic brands. They seed Google results so they show up in searches, and they are even stealing their logos, artwork and product pictures to trick unknowing consumers into spending way too much on fake bags.
Even worse, many are selling their counterfeits through online consignment stores where it's even harder to spot the fakes from the real thing.
Odd Search Results
Last Christmas, I saved $150 using a discount code at Coach on a present for my mom; it felt like a real victory. But this year when I went online to see if I could find a Coach outlet, I got some weird results: sites that looked like they might be Coach, but something was a little off. The graphics were professional. The artwork and logos similar to what I'd expect at Coach, and while I don't know handbag models by name as many fans do, the product shots looked just very similar to what I'd expect at the Coach site.
But when I looked at the web address, it wasn't coach.com. Without giving away the name it was coachfactoryoutlet(then some gibberish).com. Without that clue I probably wouldn't have realized I was at a fake site until much later in the purchasing process.
The prices on the purses were marked down, but they weren't dirt-cheap as I'd expect from a knockoff vendor like those you see on Canal Street in New York or in cities across Asia. Purses were marked down from $500 to $200 or from $350 to $125.
For the sake of this assignment, I purchased a bag at one of the supposed Coach factory outlet stores for $74; the cheapest purse I could find on the site.
As I searched "outlet" and other brand names like Prada, Louis Vuitton and Michael Kors, I found many similar sites: they had look-alike graphics, the exact brand logos and top of the line product shots. Many had live customer support buttons, "about us" pages, and highly sophisticated check-out carts.
I bought a Louis Vuitton "Neverfull GM Bag" for $200, a Michael Kors bag that the website said was originally $389 marked off to $85 and another Michael Kors for $90 that didn't list an original price. I also purchased a Prada Soffiano tote for $213 and I found a Coach bag on Amazon that seemed strange, since Coach's website says Amazon is not one of its official retail outlets. But even more confusing, the Coach bag was fulfilled by Amazon and mailed by Amazon, so this wasn't an obscure Amazon affiliate selling the bag remotely. It seemed legitimate.
Four of the five purses arrived. I took some to Valerie Salembier, who runs The Authentics Foundation, an anti-counterfeiting organization in New York.
"They're fakes," she said after looking at them.
She pointed out craftsmanship details like flaws in the stitching, inferior materials, and a dead giveaway - the Coach purse I purchased on Amazon had an SKU number on it that didn't exist anywhere on the Coach site or on other Coach affiliated websites. It was only found at the Amazon site.
In fact, all of the bags that arrived were of inferior quality: One Michael Kors bag that arrived later had a price tag on it that reads MSRP $1295.00 but It was clearly made out of plastic. The Louis Vuitton bag had hard synthetic feeling materials for the purse body. And except for the bag from Amazon, all three of the others came from China with way-bills that declared the contents as "shoes."
Salembier says that counterfeiters are getting much more sophisticated online: increasing prices so they don't look too good to be true, replicating website artwork, and posting pictures of the authentic handbags but shipping knockoffs.
"That is the secret of counterfeiting: counterfeiters are in business to replicate," she said.
And while counterfeiters replicate very well, Salembier says there are some clear warning signs and methods to protect yourself.
Check the website address or URL. If it's weird in any way, try typing in the brand name by itself and going directly through the front door of their website. If they have an outlet there will be a link.
Look for typos or grammatical errors. Click on the "24 hour support" links and if they aren't operational consider that a red flag. Click the "about us" link on the page and read it to see if it makes sense.
If you see a purse on a site and think it may be the real deal- do a Google image & shopping search and see if the picture they are showing matches the name and prices associated with the item on the brand manufacturer's site. Many counerfeiters steal the name and just apply it to completely different designs.
During the checkout process, when you're asked for a credit card, make sure the web address shows it's a secure site (has httpS, not just http).
If you are referred to a third-party payment-processing site be very skeptical- no reputable brand will redirect you for payment off of their site.
On one site where I tried to purchase a purse (but that was never charged or delivered) they asked for my full birthdate. I had to put it in for the sake of this story and have been checking my credit ever since. Salembier says many counterfeiters are tied to criminal activity beyond counterfeiting and selling an identity would make perfect sense. You may not see immediate fraudulent activity but it may be sold later in bulk to ID thieves.
Finally know your brand. Salembier says Louis Vuitton destroys all bags that are not perfect rather than selling them as seconds or as outlet stock. She says Louis Vuitton never goes on sale, period. Prada has one outlet, Salembier says; it's in the company's factory in Italy. Coach lists on its website that they only sell through the following online channels: Belk.com, Bloomingdales.com, Dillards.com, LordandTaylor.com, Macys.com, Nordstrom.com, VonMaur.com, and Coach.Ebay.com
Finally if you see a counterfeit, report it at the thecounterfeitreport.com or using the UFaker app
Added tip from the folks at UFaker: If you are buying an expensive used handbag through an online consignment store, be sure to check the website's policy and make sure that they will refund you if you purchase a bag advertised as authentic that turns out to be fake. Poshmark is an example of a on online consignment seller that does have this policy, but the folks at UFaker have seen many others that don't protect their consumers and have become hotbeds for counterfeiters.