Surrounded by impostors, what’s a consumer to do?

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By Christopher Elliott

You’re surrounded by fakes. The clothes you wear could be fake. The money you use? Not real, maybe. Even your “friends” on social media are sometimes fake.

What’s a consumer to do?

We’ve had a lively conversation about authenticity during the last two weeks, dissecting the problem of counterfeit electronics and phone cards. But as it turns out, the problem runs much deeper.

Fakes are everywhere.

Take the money you use, for example. You’ve heard about criminals printing counterfeit bills in their basement, but what about minting bogus coins? Yes, coins. One U.K.-based counterfeiter recently was sentenced to jail time for his role in forging more than £10,000 worth of counterfeit £1 and £2 coins. Apparently, the fakes weren’t that convincing, and wouldn’t have even fooled a vending machine. But still.

How about fake friends? Honestly, you can now pay a company to “like” and “follow” you on social media. So if you know someone with millions of Twitter followers or hundreds of thousands of Facebook “likes” and you’re wondering — “How’d they get so popular?” — well, now you have one possible answer.

Maybe some of their friends aren’t real.

It’s an upside-down, confusing world for consumers like you. Even when you buy a fake, like, say, fur, you might be getting … a fake.

Earlier this year, three clothing retailers settled Federal Trade Commission charges that they misled consumers by marketing products containing “faux fur,” when in fact, the products contained real fur. I’m not kidding. The government even announced it would tighten its disclosure rules related to fur.

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All of which begs the question: How can you tell if a fake is a fake?

Don’t believe the labels

In the Information Age, labels lie. Everything from the number of people following you on Twitter to the tag on your designer jacket can be faked. Some things, like holograms on electronics, are harder to fake than others, but virtually nothing is 100 percent foolproof. Nothing!

I consider myself a skeptic, but I never thought people could — or would — try to buy fake friends until some of my friends actually did it. Why? To make themselves look more popular, which, in an era of personal branding translates into more money and a higher profile. Sigh. Common sense should tell you that no one except maybe one of the Kardashians has a million real friends. Or even a hundred thousand real friends.

If it doesn’t work, it might as well be a fake

Our definition of “fake” is really limited, which is too bad. A fake product means something that isn’t authentic, strictly speaking. But during the last few weeks, in reading your comments and hearing your feedback, it’s become clear that a fake product is one that doesn’t work as promised. The fraud is that you paid money for something that doesn’t work.

If you use that definition, it’s safe to say we’re surrounded by even more fakes than we believe. How many products break down only weeks or months after their limited “warranty” expires? How many leave a trail of unhappy customers in their wake? (If you don’t know the answer, check your garage. That’s where a lot of disappointing consumer products go after they die.) I’ll say it again: If it doesn’t work, it’s a fake.

What you don’t know can hurt you

Information is your best defense against fake and fraudulent products. While it’s true that some information can be manipulated, a little digging can reveal the truth about any product, even when a company is trying to bury it. At a time when savvy corporations have “command centers” that control and shape their digital destiny, you have to stay a step ahead of the spin doctors.

In my last book, “Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, And Shady Deals,” I shared my secrets for how to hone your search skills so you can spot these fakes. I’ll give you the Reader’s Digest version: If you pay attention to more than just the first page of “search” results on Google or Bing, you’ll find plenty of truth. Most reputation management companies focus their efforts on the first few search results for a client, but ignore the rest. You shouldn’t. (Here’s our guide to resolving your consumer problem.)

Next time you go shopping, don’t get taken by a fake, or by a real thing that will end up being a fake. Get informed and don’t believe everything you read, especially if it’s on the label.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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