Counterfeit electrical components can instantly burst into flames. Hear how to identify fake wiring, breakers and switches from Brett Brenner of ESFI.
Electricians and contractors may be surprised to hear that parts of the electrical infrastructure they install could be counterfeit. They can benefit from Brett’s advice, as Dan Clark interviews him about the screening of electrical parts in the United States.
Mr. Brenner also reveals the biggest problem is beyond our borders. Counterfeits make up about 50% of electrical products sold in many developing countries.
Brett is from the Electrical Safety Foundation International, a nonprofit dedicated to getting information out about electrical counterfeiting dangers. Their motto is “Counterfeits Can Kill.”
Links to the websites mentioned in the interview are in the transcript of this podcast, below.
Brandon Nys: Welcome to Safety Experts Talk. Visit our website at CreativeSafetySupply.com/podcast for more info, including links and transcripts.
Brett Brenner: I’ve seen counterfeit wire that’s mis-stamped. I’ve seen breakers—there’s nothing inside them. Switches with nothing inside them. You’re depending on that thing to work for 30 to 50 years.
Dan Clark: Counterfeits. They’re everywhere. They’ve even found counterfeit parts on Air Force One. A huge danger is counterfeit electrical parts—and I don’t mean just iPhone chargers. Hello, I’m Dan Clark. Today, we’re talking with Brett Brenner, President of the Electrical Safety Foundation International in Rosslyn, Virginia. Hello, Brett, how are you?
Brett: I’m doing well, thank you.
Dan: Is it getting better or getting worse?
Brett: Well, in the States, I mean, I think that there’s a lot of checks and balances in place where counterfeits are, kind of, weeded out before they get to the end consumer, whether that’s on the consumer side or the industrial side. I think there’s more checks and balances in place because businesses are aware of it.
Now, that is not the case when you go overseas. Anywhere outside of America I think you’re definitely at risk to run into counterfeits on the consumer level and commercial level.
Dan: Wow. You surveyed electrical inspectors. Almost half of them said that they found a counterfeit.
Brett: Yeah, correct and I think that the inspector community knows, kind of, what to look for. These guys deal with switches and components every day and a little bit of weight difference, those guys can pick up pretty quickly, if they’re just holding it in their hand. And so, oftentimes, they see things that are fishy whether it’s packaging, whether it’s just the weight of the product itself. But, most of the time, most people know that they’re taking a risk when they’re buying outside of their supply channel that they normally buy things through.
Dan: Yeah, so, no buying at the swap meet.
Dan: Fake breakers, sockets, switches. What do you find is the most common?
Brett: Well, I think it’s, kind of, a mixed bag. It just all depends. I mean, they’ve prosecuted people across the U.S. for different counterfeits, whether they’re breakers or outlets. But I think, in the States, I feel like they’ve been able to weed a lot of them out. It’s typically the people that are trying to circumvent the system or go outside their normal distribution chain. That’s usually when you’re in trouble—or the gray market, if you will.
So, the gray market, as I described, is basically going outside of a licensed distributor or a licensed manufacturer and try to circumvent the process.
There are values in going through the process through your distributors and your manufacturers in the fact that they stand behind their products. If you’re buying it off-line from somebody that you’ve never met, or even Amazon, or something like that, you just don’t know who you’re buying it from. You don’t have a personal relationship. You don’t have a business relationship. And that person can disappear as soon as he popped up.
What’s the risk to you and your business? I realize that people are trying to give competitive bids and trying to cut costs where they can. But, cutting costs and losing everything doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Dan: Oh, absolutely. We know that those people are going to be out. Maybe, at its high point, what percentage of the electrical products that are sold in the U.S. ended up being counterfeit?
Brett: I don’t think we have a great numbers on that. Our survey was basically trying to get an idea of how may times folks have run into counterfeits in general. And I think it’s still, kind of, a moving target. I will say that counterfeit seizures in general have been up across the board when it comes to Customs and Border Patrol. But that also could be from the fact that they know what they’re looking for because the electrical industry has done a great job of educating port officials and Customs folks to let them know what to look for. You know, even the certification labs have been heavily involved in educating law enforcement, so they know what they’re doing as they’re going through their daily tasks.
So, I think that it could be twofold. It could be, one, where there’s more coming in, which I, kind of, doubt because we’re not seeing more of it pop up on the screen. But, I think it, more than likely, is just an awareness factor where they’re catching more of it before comes in. Or, you know, frankly, it’s just not coming into the United States and maybe it’s bouncing down the coasts to Mexico. You have a 50-50 chance of getting a counterfeit versus a legitimate product in Mexico.
Dan: Wow. When failures do happen, what is the risk? Is it simple failure? Or, I’m sure there must be a fire hazard.
Brett: When you’re talking oversees, it’s, kind of, the way of doing business. It’s a sad way to think about it, but in the United States we’ve become accustomed, there’s somebody responsible at the end of the day for the product that’s sold. Whether it’s a government agency or whether it’s the manufacturer or distributor, whoever might be, we have become accustomed to saying there’s somebody standing behind this product. With the world we live in, with the World Wide Web and anybody can become an instant expert, or instant distributor or a buyer, we’ve created a way—or channel—for that stuff to get into United States.
Now, if you’re going overseas, that’s a crapshoot. Consumers and businesses alike, it’s a way of doing business. If you get a product that doesn’t work, you just throw it out and buy another one. That would never happen, i don’t think, in the United States. I think it’s just a different mindset of what you expect products to be. And somebody to stand behind that product. So, what you’re finding is that, overseas, it’s just a mess. If the governments and the end consumer—whether that’s on the commercial side or the residential side—if you’re not demanding quality products that you’re going to stand behind, you’re just not going to have a quality product at the end of the day.
So, it takes everybody, kind of, in lockstep to say “it just doesn’t work for us.” And that would never work in the United States.
Getting back to what, I would say, is an overall problem. Obviously the fire and shock risk would be a big thing. Hopefully, it just wouldn’t work. It would fail automatically. But some of these products have gotten a little more sophisticated where they do work, initially. Then they just, kind of, crap out. The problem is, is that if you’re talking about wiring cable, which we’ve seen, breakers and the like, some of these things are not easy to swap out of a system of they’re installed and behind drywall and behind all the other stuff that goes up after the fact. And you’re depending on that thing to work for 30 to 50 years.
So, that’s when he gets really scary. With the electrical system in your home, for instance, it takes every piece of that electrical system to work in tandem. If something’s not working or something’s incorrect, it can cause a catastrophic failure which could result in shock or a fire. And that’s, obviously, what these devices are meant to prevent.
Dan: Even inside the wall the wiring is sometimes counterfeit?
Brett: Yeah. There’s been mis-marked wiring. When you’re counterfeiting, you’re counterfeiting everything to save the most you can on price. Copper’s obviously expensive, so one of the easiest ways to save on price is to not have the gauge of wire that you’re talking about in the product. So, you’re stamping something as a particular gauge, or a particular makeup of a wire, and if you’re misrepresenting that, it’s really hard to test what the wire’s capable of doing.
A couple years ago we saw the counterfeit Chinese drywall that was creating a problem. It’s the same type of thing where, once it’s installed, it is a nightmare to get out. That’s what happens to the electrical system because most of it’s buried behind something else. A wall or what have you.
Dan: Wow. I just wouldn’t think that it would be possible for counterfeiters to make something as complicated as rolls and rolls and rolls of wiring.
Dan: It just blows me away about what their capabilities are.
Brett: Yeah. At the end of the day, it’s all about how much profit they can make and typically it’s a little more profitable than even drug dealing. And it’s a heck of a lot less penalized around the world, even the United States.
We’re seeing a lot more people do things, whether it’s counterfeit electrical, or counterfeit prescription medication, toothpaste, you name it. I mean, there’s been a glut of the stuff that you’ve seen around the world. And whatever way they can make a buck, they’re going to do that. And if the penalties aren’t as steep in one area and the profits are good or the same, they’re going to find the weakest link and try to push through there.
We’re seeing a lot of around the world. I think the world is due for a rude awakening where they just can’t expect that to happen as standard course—for business and for consumers—just having something not work or having a extension cord set on fire as soon as you plug it in and plug something into it. I mean, that’s just not acceptable. And it’s one of those things where you have to understand the risk you’re taking when you go outside of that supply channel. And I think many people just don’t realize how dangerous it can be.
Dan: How can a safety manager or electrician spot a counterfeit? What are the things that might tip them off?
Brett: So, common things are weight of the products, packaging, certification marks that don’t look real, what looks like a mishmash of products. We’ve seen commingled products where they have legitimate products mixed with counterfeits to try to throw folks off. So, if they test one, and they test another one, and one of them is not legitimate. So, use your due diligence and go through and figure out: #1 where you’re purchasing it from. #2 is you look at a product. Does it look real? Do the certification marks look real? Does it feel the same, does a weigh the same? Any of those things that might be a little bit fishy to you might be warning signs that you might have something that isn’t legitimate.
Dan: Right. Trust your eyes. I hear that some groups are trying to improve their labeling so they can’t be replicated.
Brett: Yeah. I know that Underwriters Laboratories, Eaton and a couple other manufacturers are really taking this potential hazard very seriously. And they’re obviously trying to protect their business and their brand-name, but they’re also trying to protect the end user. And they have a pretty robust anti-counterfeiting operation where they’re trying to find this stuff before it gets into the distributor’s hands.
But they’re also trying to do a lot more in terms of labeling and certification serial numbers and that kind of thing where you, as the end user or the installer, if you think something’s wrong, you can plug in the particular serial number on that device to look at different holograms they might have available. And there’s new technologies coming on line where it’s just almost impossible to re-create that.
But, I can tell you, if history repeats itself, these counterfeiters are very creative and they always find ways to get around certain issues. And unscrupulous contractors that are trying to cut corners, there’s always a way that they can, kind of, overlook something that should’ve been overlooked and can cause a real hazard.
Dan: Mm-hm. So, the 3-D hologram label can potentially be replicated by a counterfeiter, just like any other label, I’m guessing.
Brett: Absolutely, and I think that what it comes down to is individual serial numbers were you can then go back at the almost end user—the end installer, lets say—and you’re able to check that serial number to make sure that that’s a legitimate product. So, basically, the serial number’s a one-off on every hologram, for every device.
Now, are you—the end user/installer—going to take the time to do that? That’s the other question. But if you do think there’s something wrong, that’s a great way for you to be able to go back pretty quickly and find out if there’s something, and you need to take it up the food chain.
Dan: Is the Consumer Product Safety Commission the watchdog that carefully screens products like this?
Brett: There’s a group, it’s called the Intellectual Property Rights Center. It’s actually located in our backyard in Washington, DC, where they’ve brought together a bunch of federal agencies. FBI, Customs, you name it. There’s about 15 or 20 different organizations within the federal government that have a liaison, if you will, for this group at the IPR Center. And what they do they share information about counterfeits. And that’s all intellectual property. Electrical, pharmaceutical, you name it. They’re looking to protect intellectual property rights.
So, what they’re doing is communicating. So, if Customs sees something that’s coming in, they can use the FBI to then backtrack and try to figure out who’s bringing it in the country. Way above my pay grade in terms of what, what I know. But they can get pretty sophisticated. And they have a great communication device to figure out where the stuff is coming from, where the money’s going, how it’s happening.
If you’re looking at trying to report things, they’re a great place to start. I would, obviously, go back to the manufacturer of the product. Whether it’s the real manufacturer, or not, they can probably tell you, maybe, relatively quickly about some of the things that have been a little sophisticated, in terms of them being able to identify something right away.
But, let’s say you have XYZ breaker. You can go back to XYZ company and says “Look, I bought it from XYZ. Does this make sense to you? Are they a distributor? What do you know that the product?” That kind of thing. And they might ask you a couple questions. But they’re looking to find out as much information as you have to figure out where this stuff is coming in from. If it’s legitimate, that’ll be great. If it’s not, then they want to find out where it’s coming from and how to stop it from getting into your hands.
Dan: Okay. Is there a web address for this organization?
Brett: It’s IPRcenter, spell that c-e-n-t-e-r dot gov.
Dan: IPRcenter.gov. Okay.
Dan: So, would that be the first place that, maybe, a safety manager or distributor or electrician or anybody who has a question that they would go to potentially check or report?
Brett: Yes. You could go there. Consumer Product Safety Commission, to answer your question, is going to have things after the fact, so…
Brett: What that means is, after people have reported it, they’ve done their research and they’re going to put out a recall or a warning about counterfeits. You’ll see that sometimes around the holiday times with holiday cords, extension cords, and that kind of thing.
Brett: What the IPR Center and what the manufacturers are going to have is typically a designated person or system setup where you can actually report something that you think might be counterfeit. And they’ll be able to, you know…I don’t know about immediately tell you what’s going on. But at least you can report it up the food chain.
That’s been one of the big problems that the industry, in general, has had. They would hope that the end user, the end installer, the end consumer would report more of this stuff. But, typically, they’re just throwing it away and saying “I learned my lesson. I just won’t buy from them again.”
It’d be great if you could report that back up the food chain so they can figure out where it’s coming from, how it’s getting into the country so this doesn’t have to happen again. It wouldn’t put you, hopefully, in a legal position. But what they’re trying to figure out where it’s coming from, how to stop it and then get the people that are putting it into the system itself.
Dan: I know that a lot of finger-pointing has happened on who can best stop these counterfeits, distributors and contractors are, kind of, looking at each other. In your mind, who’s the best to spot and report them?
Brett: Well, in terms of reporting, it’s going to be closer to that end-user. In terms of creating a system where folks are better educated on the dangers, not only financially—that’s one thing —but also liability-wise. If somebody were to get hurt from one of the products being installed, you’re really putting a lot on the line to save a couple bucks. And, I think, at the end of the day, the responsibility lies on everybody.
It’s easy to point your finger at the big manufacturer. But the problem is, is that big manufacturer is not even making the product that you’re buying.
Brett: So, ultimately, who’s left holding the bag? It’s going to be you, the end-user, that’s identifying it. You, kind of, have to take some responsibility and basically say “Look, if you’ve bought something—it’s not legitimate—you need to be able to tell people where you’re getting it from so other people don’t make the same mistakes.” Things happen.
At the same time, you also need to, kind of, own up and realize that you need to stay within that distribution channel because it’s going to provide some safeguards for you and the end-user that you may not have thought through and said “This is a value-add for going through a big distributor. Maybe I’ll go with one of the smaller guys, I go online.” There is an added value with going with them I comes to counterfeits.
Dan: What are some examples of really egregious counterfeit electrical products that you’ve seen?
Brett: Well, I mean, I’ve seen counterfeit wire that’s mis-stamped. I’ve seen breakers, there’s nothing inside them. Switches with nothing inside them. It, kind of, runs the gamut on the electrical side.
Brett: In terms of things that we’ve seen actually go wrong, there hasn’t been much. We’ve see a lot of consumer products that we’ve been able to test. I’ve been able to get my hands on, even locally, we’ve been able to catch them on fire pretty easily by just plugging in.
Brett: And so, that’s one of those things where you can pretty quickly see that there’s something wrong.
When you get outside of electrical, that’s really when it gets scary, where there’s true, tangible events that have happened. From cough medicine, to toothpaste, to fake drugs that are made out of any from rat poisoning to drywall. The list can go on and on. And luckily, with electrical industry, we haven’t seen as much of that where the end-user is really, truly hurt, or there’s nothing, really, lost or damaged. But, you can see pretty quickly how, if you’re dealing with something besides knockoff music or counterfeit CDs or DVDs and purses, when you go on the physical harm side, when you’re talking about electrical or you’re talking about pharmaceutical and you’re talking about those kind of things which you can ingest or have to live with on a daily basis, you can see how dangerous those can become pretty quickly.
There might not be anything that I can really say “Hey, look this is a fire that happened,” let’s say, from an electrical product that was installed. But, I can tell you the parallels there to other life-and-death things that you do take are pretty astounding.
Dan: Wow. I did have one final question about what you see as the arc of counterfeit electrical. When did it really begin, when do they get really bad and where are we in that curve?
Brett: Well, I think, if anything, we’ve plateaued. I mean, again, we might be seeing higher numbers in consumer electronics, which is where electrical is lumped into. That can be anything from counterfeit headphones to consumable type products on the electrical side. But, I can tell you that it’s one of the top ones that are seized by Customs and Border Patrol. I think it’s a good sign, the fact that we’re not hearing any stories about some of the other industries might be seeing. That’s a good sign.
Brett: That’s a good sign that they’re seizing more and more, that people know what to look for. I think, if anything, we’re on a downtrend.
But, I would say that if you look worldwide, that is going up pretty substantially. It’s a sad fact that in many Third World countries, or many countries that are developing, you can pretty much buy a legitimate product just as easily as you can a counterfeit. So, you have a 50-50 shot of getting something right. And, that’s not a place I’d want to be. As a consumer and, I think, in the States, we’ve taken that for granted. It’s something that you’ve just got to keep an eye on and make sure you’re thinking about as you’re purchasing—like you said in the beginning—iPhone chargers. Nobody wants to pay 25 bucks for it, but when it—at the end of the day—if it’s going to melt your phone, God forbid you lose one of your most important communication devices, maybe even your computer or even your TV or something like, that would be a shame. But if it burns down your house, you’re at a whole different level.
Brett: God knows if you’d lose somebody in the process to save a couple bucks, it just doesn’t make sense.
Dan: Too much of a risk. Well, we’re close to the end, here, Brett. Any final thoughts on keeping counterfeit electrical out of the workplace?
Brett: The best advice I can give anybody is:
• Stick with your supply channel that you can trust.
• You don’t want to cut too many corners, because you can really get yourself into trouble when it comes to counterfeits.
• The final thing is to make sure you’re reporting it back up the supply chain to make sure people know this isn’t a legitimate site or this is a problem. We’re seeing more and more folks, you know, look to go online and the Amazons of the world, and I can go on and on, but you need to make sure that you can trust the person you are are buying from.
Brett: Just like I purchased things in my life. It makes you feel better if you’re talking to a person, if you’ve got a place you know you can physically take it back to a brick-and-mortar store. It’s nice to be able to take things back to a Home Depot that just didn’t work out. You don’t have that same luxury if you’re going outside that supply channel where you can’t take the stuff back and there’s nobody standing behind the product.
You, ultimately, might be liable for the liability portion if something goes wrong but also you’re putting your business and your name at risk. That’s something, I think, a lot of people just don’t think about with counterfeits. It’s just not a business you want to be in. It’s not why you are where you are. And it’s not the way you’re going to get new business.
Dan: Well, this has been great, Brett. And, one more time, the Intellectual Property Rights Center, iprcenter.gov.
Dan: For any kind of reporting or questions you may have. What about your website, as well, with more information?
Brett: Yeah, we’ve got some some counterfeit activity that we put up there. Our motto is “Counterfeits Can Kill,” and it’s just up to you not to do it, so I invite you to visit our website, which is ESFI.org or ElectricalSafetyFoundationInternational.org. We’re a nonprofit, and we’re here just getting information out about the dangers that might be associated with electrical counterfeiting.
Dan: Excellent. Well, I appreciate your time today.
Brett: I appreciate it. Thank you.
Dan: Our guest is been Brett Brenner, President of the Electrical Safety Foundation International in Rosslyn, Virginia. I’m Dan Clark.
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Brandon: Thank you for joining us on Safety Experts Talk. If you have suggestions for future podcasts, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more safety experts talking about safety news, OSHA regulations, PPE, lean, 5S, or Continuous Improvement, go to CreativeSafetySupply.com/podcast.