The fight against counterfeit electrical products

By Jack Smith

In July 2010, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at the Port of Savannah, Georgia seized 1,988 desk lamps because they were marked with counterfeit Underwriter Laboratories (UL) logos.

In June, UL issued a statement notifying Authorities Having Jurisdiction, electrical contractors, electricians, retailers, and distributors that more than 6,000 8-foot ground rods may not have adequate copper plating. Although the products displayed the UL Listing Mark for the US, the products did not comply with UL's safety requirements and are not authorized to bear the UL Mark. According to the notice, the grounding rods may have been sold at electrical distributors throughout the US.

UL also issued a statement in May notifying retailers and consumers that an unknown number of 9-foot extension cords bear an unauthorized UL Mark for the US and Canada, and may pose fire and shock risks. UL states that these extension cords have undersized wiring.

Product counterfeiting is a serious issue. An estimated $1 billion in counterfeit products enter the US each year. Around $300 million to $400 million of these are counterfeit electrical products. Internationally, product counterfeiting costs global industries around $600 billion annually. According to the US CBP, 13 percent of all counterfeit products seized are electrical products, ranking them second among all category totals.

Why does product counterfeiting exist? Why is it escalating exponentially? It's called profit. Entities operating outside legal and ethical bounds are continually finding ways to circumvent detection. Counterfeiters intentionally mislead the public and everyone along the supply chain. UL adds that it's difficult to pinpoint where bad products are originally made, where the shipments originate, and who is responsible for exporting the product.

Generally, counterfeiters don't go to the expense of having products tested and verified by an approved third-party testing lab designated as a nationally recognized testing laboratory (NRTL) such as UL, FM Approvals, and TUV America, Inc. to name a few. Counterfeiters lower their costs by eliminating third-party testing, but go to great lengths to produce "fake" approval logos.

To lower costs, counterfeit products typically have substandard design, materials, and/or manufacturing quality, according to the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA). Consequently, the likelihood that a counterfeit electrical product could malfunction is much higher. NEMA says this can lead to shock, burns, fires, explosions, and incidents that can cause property damage, injury, or death.

NEMA also warns that manufacturers, distributors, and installers of electrical products could face legal risks for trading in counterfeit products - even if they are victims of counterfeiters. Although manufacturers sometimes can avoid liability for products they did not make, the focus can shift to distributors, retailers, contractors, and installers. Determining the authenticity of electrical products is becoming increasingly important to everyone in the supply chain in order to avoid liability risks.

Some of the electrical products affected by counterfeiting that NEMA, UL, and other organizations have identified include:

  • Circuit breakers
  • Control relays
  • Control switches
  • Extension cords
  • Electrical connectors
  • Electrical receptacles
  • Fuses
  • Ground-fault circuit interrupters
  • Ground rods
  • High voltage surge arrestors
  • Lamp ballasts (fluorescent lamps)
  • Lighting fixtures (luminaires)
  • Small electric motors
  • Motor control centers
  • Welding electrodes and other welding consumables
  • Wire and cable (including telecommunication wire and extension cords)

This list is not exhaustive. The NEMA and UL websites (www.nema.org and www.ul.com) provide comprehensive lists of affected electrical products as well as information on electrical product counterfeiting.

What you can do?

Don't take the authenticity of electrical products for granted. Actively seek information and education about counterfeiting prevention. Understand the electrical product supply chain, where products and components are coming from, and who is selling them. Choose reputable distributors. UL says that the name and address of the company producing the products should be on the box or container. Shipments with no address are suspicious because counterfeiters make a point to not be traceable. Packaging quality is another counterfeiting indicator. Many counterfeiters use cheap packaging.

Highly-regarded ethical companies are working with US CBP, UL, NEMA, and other agencies to thwart counterfeiters' efforts. Their brand-protection strategies include legal action against counterfeiters and other unauthorized entities in the supply chain; private investigations and cooperation with enforcement agencies; public information and education; and use of technology-based authentication methods such as holographic logo labels and laser-etching trademarks into electrical products.

Sitting on the sidelines is not an option. Everyone involved in the electrical industry - from consumer to manufacturer - has a role to play in protecting intellectual property rights as well as preventing counterfeit electrical products from entering legitimate supply chains. There needs to be proactive collaboration among manufacturers, distributors, importers, installers, contractors, law enforcement, and government to fight against product piracy and counterfeiting. The electrical industry must persuade government - and the governments of our industrial allies in the global community - to eliminate electrical product counterfeiting at its source, and to prevent their proliferation into ever-expanding markets.

For more information on electrical product counterfeiting or how to get involved, visit the following websites:

If you suspect counterfeiting, report your concern to US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement: 1-866-347-2423.

To comment on this or any of my "Solid Ground" columns or to suggest column topics, send me an e-mail at [email protected].

Until next time, keep standing on "Solid Ground."