Beijing (Mashable) — China is the world capital of fakes. Here you can get counterfeit handbags, watches and electronics that look identical to the real goods. You can visit an amusement park with over 130 replicas of other countries’ landmarks, and shop on streets lined with stores like “Cnanel” and “Tifeany” and “Starbocks”.
There are many budget-conscious fashionistas in China and abroad who are proud to swing convincing Guccis and Pradas from their shoulders, but when it comes to makeup, perfume and skincare products, fakes pose a very real danger.
Mercury, lead, arsenic, cyanide and even human urine and rat droppings are often found in counterfeit cosmetics made in China. The level of toxins in some of these products have led to severe allergic reactions including skin rashes and burns, disfigurement and long-term health problems such as high blood pressure and infertility.
While replicas of products from popular brands like MAC, Benefit and Urban Decay have long been piled high at night market tables across Asia, foreign governments have recently raised the alarm that fake beauty products made in China are being sold to online shoppers around the world.
In May, the City of London police issued a national alert after discovering a shipping container filled with more than 4,700 counterfeit versions of MAC products including foundation, lip gloss, eyebrow pencils, bronzer and eye shadow. These products were mostly made in laboratories in China and sold to Eastern Europe and the U.K. through websites such as eBay and Amazon, police said.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a similar warning last year, saying that counterfeit beauty products tested positive for a range of toxins, and also harms the U.S. economy with retail loss to legitimate American companies totalling $188 million in 2010.
This is a long running problem: From 2008 to 2010 almost 70% of all counterfeit goods seized worldwide were from China, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.
The first time 24-year-old Andrea Lo mistakenly ordered fake makeup was in early 2011, studying in the U.K. at Oxford Brookes University. Lo ordered makeup that was discounted by as much as 50% from several sellers on eBay that claimed to be based in Hong Kong.
Lo, a Hong Kong-based journalist, was aware that many counterfeit goods are made in China, but thought that sellers based in the semi-autonomous financial hub of China would be more reliable. Alarm bells only started ringing when she took a closer look at the products.
“The makeup packaging seemed odd. I remember thinking the fonts of the logos didn’t look quite right and the actual products were definitely dodgy,” Lo told Mashable. She felt it was not worth her time to make a report to authorities.
It is too soon to say whether heightened efforts from police in places like the U.K. and U.S. to investigative complaints will weaken the demand for fake products from China. Companies like Mac have said they are working with international authorities to stop the illegal sale of fake cosmetics.
China has the world’s largest ecommerce market
Yet most counterfeit products made in China are sold to local consumers. China’s ecommerce market surpassed the U.S. to become the largest in the world with 2014 with online sales reaching $296 billion.
Ming, a 28-year-old housewife from Beijing tells Mashable she made 100,000 yuan ($15,700) last year working only about 10 hours a week selling handbags, makeup and skincare products to people in her social circle.
She buys her products from factories based in the city of Guangzhou in southern China. She admits some of the products “look similar” to international brand names, but says she is honest with customers about which goods are fakes.
“I personally test the products and I know they are good quality. I think my customers are happy to find cheaper imitations of popular luxury products since they cannot afford the real versions,” said Ming.
While some customers do seek out counterfeits, thousands of other consumers have felt cheated when their purchase arrived. Commerce authorities received 77,800 complaints about online orders last year, an increase of 357% compared to the previous year, a Chinese government report said.
Since last year, the national government has stepped up efforts to clean up the gray market for fake goods, publicly putting the most pressure on Chinese Internet giant Alibaba, the dominant online shopping and online payment company that has been compared to a combination of eBay, PayPal and Amazon.
A company spokeswoman told Mashable that Alibaba cooperated with Chinese law enforcement agencies in over 1,000 counterfeiting cases last year, leading to hundreds of arrests.
While efforts from the government and companies like Alibaba can offer consumers some protections, experts say punishments for counterfeiters are still too vague, with most getting fines instead of jail time.
“Sellers are also starting to bypass the stricter rules on online marketplaces in favor of using mobile chat platforms to sell products,” said Yao Jianfang, a legal analyst at the China E-commerce Research Center.
The mobile chat application WeChat is the most popular platform for this emerging form of e-commerce in China, where it is difficult for regulators to monitor transactions since they happen between individuals rather than from a public website. Ming exclusively uses WeChat to sell her products because she said it is too risky to sell fake products on websites.
There have been no reports of fake makeup sold to people overseas from WeChat, but this could become a problem in the future as there are already over 100 million WeChat users outside China. International brands, however, are already being affected—with many WeChat accounts purporting to be “official” Louis Vuitton sellers for example. Tencent Holdings, the company that owns WeChat, has not responded to Mashable’s multiple requests for comments.
In order to protect themselves, Yao said consumers should learn as many details about the product and the merchant before they buy online, and try to compare the product purchased online with a genuine article.
But it gets more tricky when products sold online are real products that are sold just as they are about to expire, or when sellers mix real products with water or other ingredients in order to sell a larger volume of goods. Even if the added ingredients are not toxic, the products can become contaminated with bacteria or other harmful substances in the process.
Especially in these cases, a cheap price is not a reliable indicator since the products may cost the same or only marginally less expensive than prices listed in official stores.
Those searching for a beauty bargain may be better off going barefaced than risk the consequences.