Fake goods are getting more dangerous – and easier to buy. Consumer editor Sophie Hazan reports on the battle to stamp them out in Leeds.
Lives could be put at risk by rip-offs and fakes now circulating in Leeds, officials are warning.
The fight against counterfeit goods is moving from fake designer labels to alcohol, cigarettes and drugs - which can contain chemicals not meant for human consumption.
In one recent raid, 600 bottles of counterfeit ‘Premium Vodka’ were seized from an as yet unidentified nightclub in Leeds by West Yorkshire Trading standards.
Analysts have found the alcohol - not associated with any legitimate premium vodka - to contain methadone, a synthetic opiate used as a substitute for heroine addicts, and benzene, a known carcinogen found in crude oil, as well as other trace elements.
David Lodge, divisional manager at West Yorkshire Trading Standards, said: “People think it’s a bargain so they buy it, but in reality what it will have in it is ‘denatured’ alcohol – stuff that’s for industrial use so that the basic alcohol starts out exactly the same but chemicals have been added to stop people drinking it – like they do with methylated spirits.
“Someone somewhere is getting hold of some by-product – perhaps for use in agriculture.
“In the case of ‘Premium Vodka’ our analysis showed really random chemical trace elements which suggests the basic alcohol was being used for an industrial process but then adapted for human consumption by adding flavourings and sweeteners, turning it into ‘Vodka’.
“There’s no way a genuine manufacturer would want these chemicals in their product.
“And while the spirits we have tested so far wouldn’t harm you if consumed in small quantities, there is the danger that next time it contains a lethal dose as no-one is monitoring its contents.”
Ruth Orchard, director-general of the UK’s Anti-Counterfeiting Group, a not-for-profit organisation, says the copying of prescription drugs is the most worrying aspect of the latest trends.
She said: “The online trade in pharmaceuticals is a particular worry as it’s beginning to circumvent regulation – people can order here and have them posted from abroad.”
She added: “Buying fake medicines knowingly is just plain stupid – it may save money, or time, or both as there is no need to go to the doctor, but to be putting your health at risk...
“[In the UK] the trend has moved from Valium and Viagra – which are almost ‘lifestyle drugs’ and are unlikely to kill you – to drugs for cancer, heart conditions, epilepsy, asthma and depression, which won’t work, so they could well kill you that way.”
Black market cigarettes and tobacco are also costing our health, and the government a loss in VAT and duty.
Mr Lodge said: “Over the last couple of years we have been working a lot more closely with the Department of Health.
“From a health perspective fake cigarettes are a massive issue.
“There is a real issue where smokers say they are more likely to give up expensive tobacco products but smuggled tobacco and cigarettes are undermining that.
“Not only do they contain extra chemicals that make them even worse for your health, but they are temptingly cheap too.”
The fight against these ‘rip-offs’ and fakes in Leeds is as alive as it has ever been.
Criminals are still making a small fortune copying branded goods and selling them off cheaply.
Although it is difficult to quantify just how prevalent the problem is in West Yorkshire, according to the ACG 15 million fakes have been seized in the UK since 2001.
And that figure is rising.
Buying these unregulated goods leaves consumers with inferior products and damages the economy.
Yet it is a market that remains popular with consumers and there is little sign of a slowing in the sales of illicit goods, according to Mr Lodge.
It is also getting more difficult to detect the sellers, he added.
Traditionally, trading standards officers wanting to plug the stream of illegal goods pouring into the county would visit car boot sales, intercept one-off auctions or send test purchasers into suspect stores, but today they are competing with the complexities of the world wide web.
Consumers desperate for a bargain on a ‘must have’ item, are looking to online auction places, listings and social networking sites.
Manufacturing of fakes has in the main moved abroad – particularly to China.
And shipments into the UK are very difficult to detect as they are often mailed direct to the buyer as small, inconspicuous packages.
Mr Lodge said: “When you look at counterfeit trends the most significant thing to note is how they are being sold – on the internet.
“A few years ago Cross Green car boot sale made our lives easier as we’d go up there with the police and raid the stalls selling counterfeit goods.
“But now everything has switched onto the internet and not just eBay, but social networking sites like Facebook too.
“You can see all these new ‘designer’ things being sold for ridiculously low prices, and it’s very difficult to find out who is behind it.”
It has become such a problem that a dedicated team has been set up to deal specifically with e-crime in Yorkshire and the Humber, including the selling of counterfeits.
Mr Lodge added: “Traditionally our best result would be to find a warehouse full of counterfeit gear.
“But now it could be a guy in China delivering directly to a house in Leeds and if the goods get through customs we have a huge problem trying to detect it.
“Designer handbags and other expensive goods are more and more likely to be shipped directly.”
Sportswear and shoes remain the most copied items, but overall the scale has remained a constant getting neither better or worse.
At a time when the UK is in a double dip recession, Mr Lodge said it is time consumers stopped to think about the immorality of buying counterfeits.
He said: “Trademark holders are victims of their own success as they spend millions and millions of pounds on building up these images so people buy their things and then people copy them.
“From the legitimate industry’s point of view it’s about getting the balance right, and while we’ll never stop fakes completely – not without consumers refusing to buy them – we must carry on trying to keep the criminals making the black market products in check, or it would have a catastrophic affect on the UK economy with designers refusing to sell here.”
He added: “We have tried to deliver the message that people are harming the economy, or we have said to people they are buying poor-quality goods, but they are more bothered about the price, even though that T-shirt shrinks in the wash and can’t be worn again, or that television breaks after a week.
“It’s difficult to say to people not to buy [fakes] and there’s a certain group of people who just don’t care.
“And all the things that cost a fortune in the shops, but in reality very little to copy, are all up for grabs where the black market manufacturers are concerned.”
If you suspect something to be counterfeit report it to Citizen’s Advice Bureau on 08454 04 05 06.