Know when you may be in a counterfeit situation.
By Jeff Griffin
Counterfeit products are so common in today’s marketplace that many people take them for granted. Indeed, some consumers are happy to purchase cheap imitations of expensive designer clothing and accessories and knockoff watches bearing prestigious brand names. Others purchase counterfeit goods, thinking they are genuine, and are disappointed or outraged when they discover they have been duped with a fake. Of course, these kinds of counterfeits pose no safety risk. However, counterfeit electrical products—their number rapidly growing—bring serious performance issues and safety hazards that can result in injury and death.
Product performance and safety are not considerations of counterfeiters who use inferior materials and assemble products made to fail, enabling them to sell their goods at prices far below genuine products. Counterfeiters focus on products that can be easily mass produced at low cost. Furthermore, they often use well-known names and include unauthorized Underwriters Laboratories (UL) marks to further mislead buyers.
Categories of electrical products identified as high risks for counterfeiting by the Electrical Safety Foundation International include control relays for industrial equipment, circuit breakers, fuses, electrical receptacles, ground-fault circuit interrupters, conduit fittings, electrical connectors, lamps, electronic lamp ballasts, dry cell batteries, lithium-ion batteries, smoke detectors, power strips and surge suppressors, electrical extension cords and power cords for computers and other equipment.
Counterfeit circuit breakers have become a global problem, said Clark Silcox, legal counsel for the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA).
“We are seeing knockoffs of several well-known North American brand names of residential circuit breakers. In the Western Hemisphere, the problem is present from Canada to the end of South America. The source of the counterfeit residential breakers appears to be exclusively China, where Chinese counterfeiters are even making knockoffs of well-known Chinese brand name circuit breakers,” Silcox said.
In addition, the industry is seeing knockoffs of well-known brands of larger molded-case circuit breakers used in commercial settings.
“Some of the larger circuit breakers are from China,” Silcox said, “but others are genuine products believed to be destined for export but which were diverted and labels adulterated to remove valuable product information, including information that could be critical to a product recall or relabeled for the domestic market. In some of these cases, the circuit breakers have been ‘up-amped’ to misrepresent them as products they are not in order to resell at a higher price.”
Silcox noted that, while there is evidence of counterfeit brand names on wire and cable, the bigger problem is products that bear counterfeit certification marks primarily on extension cords and power strips sold through deep discount retail outlets and at flea markets.
“These products are dangerous,” Silcox said. “The common thread and threat is that the cord is substandard and does not meet the listing agency’s specifications. Almost always, the copper wire gauge is thinner than that called for by safety standards that the test labs test to. Because copper has become very expensive, using less copper enables the counterfeiter to sell the product at a lower price by creating an unsafe condition.”
NEMA members estimate approximately 750,000 counterfeit ground connectors were imported from China and India in 2007.
“The safety standard calls for a minimum 10 mils of copper to be applied evenly across the 8-foot steel rod to protect the rod in the ground from degradation due to corrosion,” Silcox said. “Ground rods meeting the safety standard will typically last for 40 or even 50 years in the ground, providing building owners and utilities with long-term protection from the risks of power surges due to events, such as lightning. The counterfeit rods that NEMA has seen have 2 to 3 mils of copper, which means they will last five to eight years in the ground, at which time the risk of corrosion sets in.”
In legal terms, a product is counterfeit if it bears a mark identical or substantially indistinguishable from a genuine trademark registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Unauthorized use of the UL or Canadian Standards Association International mark places a product in the counterfeit category. Typically, the term has come to be used to include inferior equipment that has no name or marking, labeling that misrepresents the product’s specifications, and look-alike knockoffs that do not carry the imitated product’s name but are designed to look like the genuine article. Silcox said court cases have held that the practice of label adulteration is counterfeiting.
“Producers of counterfeit products, including circuit breakers, use inadequate materials and manufacturing processes, often without a thorough understanding of the products’ necessary design specifications or intended use,” said Jim Pauley, vice president, industry and government relations, Schneider Electric North American Operating Division, Palatine, Ill. “Most counterfeiters have no knowledge of how the product works. They use reverse engineering to attempt to replicate the genuine article. But after disassembling counterfeit circuit breakers, we find they are made of inferior materials and may include parts that would never be used together—parts from different models, for example. Tests confirm counterfeits will not function properly and cannot pass basic tests as circuit breakers.
“Counterfeiters do not care if their products work,” he added. “They are not looking for repeat customers. If a recall of a counterfeit product is issued by a government agency, the original counterfeiter never bears the burden of that recall effort. Suppliers have no recourse, and buyers get what they paid for.
“In our experience, most counterfeit products are manufactured in China, but we also have discovered entities in the U.S., Mexico and South America that are distributing counterfeits,” Pauley said.
“Counterfeiting is a significant problem, and it’s growing as counterfeiters become more sophisticated and more brazen,” said Kevin Yates, vice president, Residential Products Division, Siemens Energy & Automation, Alpharetta, Ga.. “The problem is especially troubling in the residential and commercial construction markets, as electrical components like circuit breakers are easy targets. A recent survey in ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR magazine found that almost 86 percent of those responding could not tell the difference between real or counterfeit breakers. Counterfeit circuit breakers pose serious safety and business issues beyond the economic impact. They put lives at risk. Safety standards are not being met, and no warranties or guarantees back them up.”
Yates said Siemens’ primary interest in this issue is the safety of its customers and channel partners. However, Siemens also wishes to protect its brand. To address the situation, the company is focusing on education, identification and prosecution if necessary.
“Counterfeiters make copies. They are not the designers,” said Kevin Harris, international policy manager, European organization, Eaton Electrical Group. “They use inferior or recycled materials. And they may eliminate certain components, and they miss out on quality control. The products may look okay and very often can be quite difficult to identify as counterfeits. But they do not work and rarely perform to the specifications on the labels, so reliability is greatly impaired, which can result in severe health and safety issues to the public.
Larry Wilson, senior communications manager, Fluke Corp., Everett, Wash., said Fluke is facing a different problem.
“We aren’t seeing counterfeits of our testers, but cheap look-alike units whose makers attempt to make their appearance through face design and color combinations appear to be Fluke equipment,” he said. “To protect our brand, we own rights to the color combination and faces of our testing units and are very vigilant about taking legal action against those who violate our copyrights.
Wilson said Fluke tests all of its meters before they are sold, subjecting them to high voltage spikes to make sure they exceed industry standards. It is unlikely look-alike equipment meets industry specifications, and those Fluke has tested fail to withstand spikes.
“The insidious thing about this is that, to make a buck, people are put in danger,” Wilson said.
GRIFFIN, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at email@example.com.