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Avoiding Counterfeit Items on eBay

How and why to steer clear of fakes

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Years after the invention and popularization of DVDs and DVD players, some of the biggest films in the movie industry hadn't yet been released on DVD. Until recently, if you were an Indiana Jones fan, for example, you were stuck watching your favorite flicks on outdated VHS tapes, since the studio that produced the Indiana Jones films hadn't seen fit to release anything else.

If you were a particularly loyal fan and an eBay member, you may have been one of the thousands that discovered DVDs of the entire Indiana Jones series for sale on eBay, complete with subtitles, studio artwork, and DTS digital sound—selling very, very inexpensively. Many fans saw these DVDs on eBay and an online buzz was generated amongst some of the more naive audience members—eBay obviously had a line on products that weren't "out yet," and they had these products very cheaply! What a steal!

Except that the deal wasn't all that great. Buyers of these DVDs quickly found that they weren't quite what they'd seemed to be. Shipped from Hong Kong or even innocuous places like Provo, Utah, these DVDs looked like the real thing until they were actually put into a DVD player. Then, buyers found that they were horrible quality bootlegs, copied from the same tired set of VHS tapes and produced on inferior equipment with low fidelity output.

In short, they weren't just fakes—they were bad fakes. Unfortunately, eBay plays host to its fair share of both good fakes and bad fakes of many of the most popular items in the world. Sometimes it's obvious that a listing is for a fake, counterfeit, or imitation item, but often it isn't. There are good reasons to want to know the difference.

Common Fakes and Why You Might Want To Avoid Them

Though you'll find counterfeit items (or "gray area" items) in many eBay categories, there are a few categories in which fake items are extremely common, despite eBay's attempts to crack down on unscrupulous sellers.

  • Computer software. One of the worst offenders on the eBay site, the computer software category is unfortunately littered with counterfeit and pirated goods.

  • Music, movies, and entertainment media. Electronic entertainment media of all kinds is commonly sold illegally on eBay, whether in the form of pirated/unlicensed copies, or in the form of import- or export-restricted goods.

  • Designer goods. Designer goods in many shapes and sizes, including clothing, accessories, household goods, and even commercial art, is often sold either in counterfeit or pirated form on eBay.

  • Collectibles and antiques. Many collectibles and antiques on eBay are sold in so-called "grey auction" format, in which the seller isn't quite clear about whether the item is authentic or not.

  • Pop culture memorabilia, especially if newsworthy. There is always demand for goods and memorabilia related to the rich and famous, especially those that have recently been in the news. Often, however, it's either fake, not particularly valuable, or unauthenticatable.

  • Consumer electronics. Finally, a certain proportion of the consumer electronics items on eBay are either import- or export-restricted or sold in markets other than those for which they were intended by the manufacturer.

Given the items on this list, an argument can be made that counterfeits, fakes, and region-restricted items are at times good buys for consumers. After all, thanks to eBay, consumers in a given part of the world might be able to buy a product or good to which they might otherwise never have had access, or at a price that they might never otherwise have been able to afford.

Why might you as a buyer want to be careful about buying these types of goods? There are very sound and pragmatic reasons to exercise caution.

  • Law enforcement and civil liability. In the case of items like pirated computer software, international enforcement activity is very high. Though it is unlikely that you'll find yourself in legal trouble just for making a single software purchase, it isn't impossible—and multiple purchases compound your risk of incurring severe penalties or liabilities.

  • Functionality and support. As was the case with the counterfeit Indiana Jones DVDs, the quality of counterfeit products is often lower that the quality of genuine goods. Even when the quality is equal, manufacturers generally refuse to support counterfeit or grey market items in any way. You won't be able to get updates, warranty service, or even dial the product's help line if you have an issue.

  • Investment value. By purchasing a counterfeit or grey-market good, you are investing your hard-earned dollars in an item that is intrinsically less valuable than the real thing, and that is correspondingly unlikely to retain value (or increase in value) at the same rate as the genuine article. In short, fake goods make bad investments.

So what can you do to avoid and report questionable listings on eBay? Read on to find out.

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