Inside the Wild $500 Billion World of Counterfeit Goods

“The items can be dangerous.”

When faced with two seemingly identical products, most people would be tempted to buy the cheaper option. After all, who doesn’t love a bargain?

The world of counterfeit goods is both much larger and more dangerous than you probably realize. The costs associated with making a consumer good safe to use—the technology and materials required to meet safety standards—are part of that good’s price.

“Counterfeiters don’t observe any of these norms. These items can be really dangerous,” says Piotr Stryszowski, Senior Economist at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. 


While some products, like a knock-off handbag or a pair of sneakers may present little immediate risk, other counterfeited products might give you pause: Auto parts like brakes and seat belts. Masks marketed as protection from Covid-19. Pharmaceuticals. Food. 

And in recent years, counterfeiting has expanded from industries like luxury goods, cosmetics, and toys and into construction, agriculture, and machinery.

Fake goods aren’t just a problem for consumers, they also present a challenge for legitimate manufacturers.

Evan Feldstein, Vice General Manager and General Counsel at Foreo, a beauty products manufacturer, was dismayed by a report that a Foreo electric toothbrush—later discovered to be counterfeit—had set a bed on fire.

“I’m online every day looking at eBay and Amazon and Alibaba and, and I’m looking, going ‘Oh my gosh, there are hundreds, thousands of listings of fake products,’” Feldstein says. 

The problem has proven to be a tough one to tackle, in part because fakes can be tedious and time-consuming to report, but also because counterfeit and deceptively packaged goods can hide in plain sight.

“China is a huge center for illicit trade for a number of reasons. Because it does produce so many useful goods, so many legitimate goods” says Feldstein. 

Counterfeit goods are often shipped from China alongside legitimate products, to every corner of the globe in massive shipping containers. The sheer scale of global trade makes it impossible for customs agents and law enforcement personnel to inspect every single container or product. This allows counterfeiters to enjoy what Stryszowski calls a “free ride,”  entering the market through existing distribution channels.

The result is a global industry of fake goods worth more than $500 billion annually.

“Without trade, we would not have most of these goods that surround us, but it comes with a risk,” says Stryszowski, who points out that the danger goes beyond health and safety concerns. “[It’s about| financing criminal networks...corruption that can be driven by illicit trade, poor working conditions in factories that produce counterfeit goods.”