Washington, DC - Friday, November 28 marked the unofficial start to the holiday shopping season and signaled to some that their sales of fake merchandise would kick into high gear.

It was also when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) began to promote its public-awareness campaign to be wary about buying counterfeit merchandise.

“Black Friday” sales drew consumers by the thousands to line up for hours to get a drastically reduced TV, pair of shoes or piece of furniture.  Those who chose to literally avoid the holiday rush could also take advantage of “Cyber Monday” and catch equally attractive deals online. 

While the sales that many businesses are providing in their stores and online are tempting, there are still many shoppers who are always looking for an even better deal. However, in doing so, HSI agents warn that consumers have to be on alert this holiday season to avoid hoaxes and scams when shopping for their loved ones.

According to HSI Dallas Supervisory Special Agent John McNair, consumers must be vigilant and cautious because products can be counterfeited. The most popular counterfeited items sold to consumers during the holidays are handbags and electronic products such as cell phones, handheld devices, and their many accessories.

One of the red flags consumers should look out for is an extreme price difference from what others are charging.

“Around the holidays, we as shoppers are always looking for a bargain,” said HSI Dallas Assistant Special Agent in Charge John Wells. “However, if you see designer handbags selling extremely under market value, there’s something wrong.”

With the increase of holiday shopping being done online, not only is there a greater threat of consumers being hoaxed and falling for scams, but with personal information being provided, identity theft is also a serious concern.

“Counterfeiters have mastered the process of packaging counterfeit products, and that includes the websites that sell counterfeit products,” Wells said.  “The sophisticated-looking websites selling high-end name-brand products may lead back to China.  And the products, may not only be inferior, they may be dangerous.”

In addition to all the other problems associated with buying counterfeit merchandise, funding organized crime is another extreme downside.  Counterfeits have become big business that make big profits for their criminal organizations.

ICE involves itself in hoax and scam prevention for enforcement and education. During the holidays, agents offer the following tips to avoid buying counterfeit merchandise:

  • If the price seems too good to be true, then it probably is.
  • Buy from reputable manufacturers, and stores.
  • Research online sellers before purchasing.  The comments of people who have made previous purchases may be especially helpful.
  • Don't buy anything advertised via bulk email ("SPAM”).
  • Be suspicious of websites that do not provide a toll-free contact number.
  • When submitting financial information online, verify that the website is secure, that payments are submitted to website addresses beginning with https://.

Hoaxes can happen at any time. However, during the holidays, when shopping increases and consumers are looking for deals that are inexpensive and easily accessible, the threat is heightened. Holidays are supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, so when shopping, shop wisely.