March 13 2013 12:00 AM

MSU experts, federal agent: Product counterfeiting is a profitable, dangerous industry

Wednesday, Jan. 16 — If you think counterfeit goods are limited to Coach handbags and football jerseys, think again. Experts from Michigan State University and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security say everything from Christmas lights and toothpaste to pesticides and aviation parts are counterfeited. 

At a forum today hosted by the MSU Institute for Public and Policy and Social Research, three professors from the Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection Program at MSU and a special agent with the Department of Homeland Security discussed the counterfeiting industry.

Jeremy Wilson, founder and director of A-CAPPP, said counterfeiting goods is a $600 billion industry and the bogus products make up 5 to 7 percent of world trade.

On Thursday, federal agents shut down and seized the goods of a store in Meridian Mall for allegedly selling counterfeit sporting goods and memorabilia.

Wilson said the Meridian Mall incident is a perfect example of how this “global” problem can happen “right in our backyard.”

John Spink, a criminal justice professor and member of A-CAPPP, said there is no product too inexpensive or expensive to counterfeit. “It’s not all about luxury handbags and watches,” he said, adding that even dollar store toothpaste has counterfeits.

Eleven percent of the 1,000 people surveyed for the MSU IPPSR State of the State Survey said they had unknowingly purchased counterfeit goods, Spink said. Another 20 percent said they had knowingly purchased counterfeit goods.

“Product counterfeiting goes beyond just a fake t-shirt,” said Justin Heinonen, a criminal justice professor and A-CAPPP faculty member.

Heinonen said some counterfeit goods that have been found in Michigan — like medicine, health and hygiene products, propane tanks and nuclear reactor parts — can pose “very serious, very direct” harm to people. Bogus medicine can have ingredients that either don’t help an ailment or can cause harm on their own. And a fake nuclear reactor component could prove devastating if they fail, he said.

Wilson said “hundreds of thousands” of injuries and deaths occur every year in the U.S. because of counterfeit goods.

A “key intervention point” for spotting and removing counterfeit products from the market lies with the consumer, Heinonen said. Many product-counterfeiting investigations begin because a consumer filed a complaint, he said.

Derryk Burgess, a special agent with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security based in Detroit, elaborated on Heinonen’s point. He said “unfortunately” sometimes the only way to know a batch of goods, like medicine, might be counterfeit is when someone gets hurt or sick.

Burgess said: “Don’t ignore it” if you believe you’ve purchased a counterfeit good — for whatever reason. “Take it and call the right people,” he said, like the store you purchased it from or the Food and Drug Administration.

Spink said consumers should keep an eye out for “misplaced products,” like infant formula in a convenience store.

“If the price is too good to be true — it probably is,” Burgess said.