Labels Make a Difference

Certification companies are working to keep customers safe.

By Chuck Ross

Counterfeit electrical products can be difficult to distinguish from their genuine counterparts because inferior components often are hidden from view. However, one good guarantor of authenticity is so obvious it is often overlooked: the labels indicating the product has been certified as safe by either Underwriters Laboratories (UL) or Canadian Standards Association International (CSA). Taking time to inspect these marks could help prevent substandard products from entering the market or becoming a part of an upcoming project.

When was the last time you actually looked at the UL or CSA label printed on a product’s packaging or wrapped around the product itself? These certification marks have become such common components of product-label design that many of us don’t notice them anymore. And, because we see them on everything from extension cords to switchgear, it’s easy to forget these ubiquitous logos actually mean something.

This lack of awareness makes the work of counterfeiters easier, say representatives of UL and CSA. Because consumers don’t take the time to check for UL and CSA marks or don’t recognize when those marks are fraudulent, counterfeiters don’t have to worry that their own imitations will be detected. Now, both organizations are stepping up efforts to boost label awareness and to prosecute those attempting to pass off fraudulent marks as the real thing.

Why marks matter

With many electrical products reaching near-commodity status, it is important to remember that safety-laboratory certification is a critical product differentiator, especially when dealing with potentially hazardous electrical equipment.

“It’s not just a matter of someone stealing your name,” said John Drengenberg, UL’s consumer affairs manager. “It actually could impact on someone’s safety. It’s something we take very seriously.”

UL and CSA labels indicate a product has been tested to all applicable standards, either by one of the certifying organization’s own laboratories or by professionals at an accredited third-party facility. Before either of the groups’ logos can be applied to a product, certifying personnel inspects the manufacturing facility. Random product and plant inspections continue as long as the product remains on one of the certifiers’ rolls.

In their efforts to pass as legitimate manufacturers, counterfeiters often attempt to duplicate UL and CSA logos. Buyers may believe their purchases are safe, but these products lack the assurance provided by testing the products’ performances. That testing is a manufacturing expense knockoff makers seek to avoid.

“Money can be made if you cut corners, and this is one corner,” Drengenberg said.

Hidden dangers

Most counterfeit electrical products are low-cost, high-volume items, such as extension cords and power strips, Drengenberg said. And many of these are marketed directly to consumers at deep-discount retailers and flea markets. However, professional-market items aren’t immune from counterfeiters’ efforts.

To illustrate just how dangerous such products could be, consider tests UL ran on a sample of counterfeit circuit breakers. At 135 percent of rated current, the UL-approved device tripped after one hour, while the counterfeit device still hadn’t tripped after two hours. At 200 percent of the rated current, the breaker approved to UL standards tripped in two minutes, while the counterfeit device didn’t trip after 10 minutes.

Extension cords seized by Canadian officials in a 2005 Toronto raid, bearing forged UL marks, were found to be manufactured of thin telephone wire and melted within just a few minutes of testing. Outlet strips seized during the same import/export warehouse investigation featured a plastic casing that ignited immediately in testing, along with reverse-polarity wiring, which is a shock hazard.

“We’ve had some cases where [CSA labels] have been on some fairly high-level breakers in hospitals,” said Rod Jones, manager of counterfeit intelligence for Toronto-based CSA International. “But when you took a look at the breakers, they have either used parts or rusted parts.” 

Counterfeit certifications

Investigators are seeing more of these incidents, as counterfeiters are expanding operations from luxury goods into other product categories. A problem once limited to high-end clothing and jewelry industries has expanded into the full range of manufactured goods. As a result, certification groups are spending more time tracking down and prosecuting counterfeiters to help maintain the integrity of their labels. Jones said the problem of imitation labels is a relatively new one.

“Ten years ago, it was nonexistent,” he said. “Over time, it’s increased to a level that the certification industry as a whole has started to look at. It’s become such an issue that we have a special department for it, and we all have fairly significant caseloads.”

Now, both UL and CSA have aggressive anti-counterfeiting initiatives underway to both identify fake certification labels and prosecute offenders. Both organizations have strict non-negotiation policies, and any seized products are destroyed once they are no longer needed as evidence.

The majority of counterfeit goods are made overseas, and this activity is growing in parallel with legitimate, offshore manufacturing operations, Jones said. That fact, along with the overall expansion in worldwide trade, means regional or national certification groups are refocusing their missions and becoming more international. CSA, for example, now has a senior counterfeit intelligence officer in Guangzhou, China.

International police authorities also are becoming involved in the fight against counterfeiting. The newly created Certifications Industry Anti-Counterfeiting Initiative is bringing together 15 certifying organizations from around the globe, along with Interpol, to create a centralized counterfeiting database. UL, CSA and other certifiers will be able to report their current investigations to database managers, who will be able to establish connections between products that might be seized in a range of locations.

“This lets us pool our information in an organized way,” Jones said. “Otherwise, we’re operating in isolation.”

Technology is becoming a critical component of such anti-counterfeiting efforts, with UL and CSA both introducing holographic labels for use in high-risk product categories, including frequently faked extension cords and power strips. UL’s latest generation features multiple metallic tones and the kind of color-shifting appearance common to new U.S. paper currency.

Do your homework

But high-tech labels aren’t the only solution to reducing the number of substandard electrical products entering the marketplace. Distributors and contractors also must do their part by showing diligence when beginning new trade relationships with overseas partners.

“If you’re importing electrical products, realize there are some regulatory requirements, and if that includes third-party certification, just hearing from an agent overseas isn’t enough,” Jones said. “Make that a part of your tender, that you need a certification of compliance. If it’s a legitimate company, that should be at their fingertips.”

However, a simple certification number isn’t enough to ensure a company is maintaining its products’ quality. To keep its certification current, manufacturers must allow certification personnel ongoing access to records and facilities. You can ensure a potential supplier is keeping up with these practices through online databases accessible through the CSA and UL Web sites.

“Any listing is public information,” Drengenberg said. “And every [legitimate] manufacturer wants everybody to know it.”

ROSS is a freelance writer based in Brewster, Mass. He can be reached at chuck@chuck-ross.com.

Counterfits Can Kill