Which one is counterfeit?

Identifying phony electrical products can save lives and profits


The counterfeiting of well-known brands and products is a growing problem, estimated to be 5% to 7% of world trade, or about $600 billion each year. Counterfeit health and safety products such as electrical and electronic products now occupy second place after pharmaceuticals on the list of those most frequently seized by U.S. Customs.

Identifying phony electrical products can save lives and profits. Courtesy: Eaton

Counterfeiting has a negative impact on not only companies’ bottom lines and reputations but also public safety. Counterfeit electrical products can overheat or cause short circuits, leading to fires, shocks, or explosions that can cost workers their lives and produce considerable property damage. These illegal products don’t need to comply with performance and safety specifications and they are not tested or approved.

It is important that facility managers understand the dire consequences of using unsafe counterfeit products and know how to avoid them.

By definition, a counterfeit is a product, service, or package for a product that uses, without authorization, the trademark, service mark, or copyright of another intended to deceive prospective customers into believing that the product or service is genuine. This makes detecting the difference between a counterfeit and authentic product difficult.

In fact, Eaton has shown industry professionals, from plant and facility managers to independent electrical resellers, two seeming identical breakers and asked each professional to pick out the counterfeit breaker. After inspecting the breakers for everything from recognizable certifications and brand stickers to noticeable defects or missing parts, each professional leads to a common realization, “I never would have thought it to be counterfeit—I didn’t know.”

You can do the test yourself by looking at the circuit breakers at the top of this page. Can you tell which one is counterfeit? The answer is at the end of this article.

While identifying a counterfeit product is difficult at first glance, there are many ways to detect and avoid them prior to making an actual purchase.

The best way to avoid counterfeit electrical products is to purchase products from the manufacturer’s authorized distributors or resellers. There is a higher risk of counterfeits if one cannot trace the path of commerce to the original manufacturer.

Counterfeiters do an excellent job of disguising their products to look like the real thing. The bar code (upper right), date code (lower left) and style number (lower right) on this circuit breaker are authentic. Courtesy: EatonSome manufacturers and certification organizations also provide tools to verify that electrical products are authentic. This can be an easy way to detect if a product is not certified and therefore should be avoided. For example, Eaton’s new Circuit Breaker Authentication (CBA) tool is designed to allow customers to detect if Eaton circuit breakers are counterfeit. By entering the bar code, part number, and date code found on the circuit breaker, the CBA tool is intended to immediately verify authentication. You will use this online tool, at www.eaton.com/counterfeit, to learn if you correctly guessed which circuit breaker is counterfeit.

When shopping for electrical products, managers can look for key red flags that signify an item, or distributor, should be avoided. The first red flag is “bargains” that seem too good to be true. Compare the price of that product to a similar product at a different retailer. If it seems too good to be true, the odds are it is.

Scrutinizing labels and packaging can also help identify a counterfeit product, but is just one part of the detection process. As counterfeiters become more sophisticated, a higher level of scrutiny becomes necessary. Check for certification labels from organization such as UL, the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), or other organizations that certify the quality and performance of electrical products.

Avoid products that lack any identifying branding label or affiliation and be leery of additional markings or labeling not applied by the original manufacturers and of missing or poor-quality labels, out-of-date product codes, and non-genuine packaging.

In this counterfeit version of the breaker, you can see there is no date code. The style number and bar code are similar, but if there is a question, many companies have ways to verify the legitimate electrical equipment. Courtesy: EatonPay close attention to products purchased. Quality control is often lacking in counterfeiting operations, so you may be able to spot a counterfeit simply based on its workmanship. Be wary of products that seem flimsy or that have any noticeable flaws.

Always be on the lookout for materials that come with a product. Counterfeit products often don’t include supplementary materials such as an owner’s manual or product registration card. Sometimes counterfeiters do not include all the parts that should come with the product, or some parts will be from a different manufacturer.

Finally, if a product is suspected to be counterfeit, it is recommended to contact the original manufacturer. This will allow authentication of the suspect product and ensure that the potentially unsafe product is removed from the marketplace.

While the physical differences between the two breakers embedded in this article are nearly undetectable, the second circuit breaker is counterfeit. Try it out yourself by entering the highlighted information into the authentication tool at www.eaton.com/counterfeit.   

As brand protection manager for Eaton’s Electrical Sector, Tom Grace oversees counterfeit awareness, training, and prevention. This involves building awareness of the risks that counterfeit electrical products present to personal safety and the economy with end customers, contractors, inspectors, and electrical resellers. For more information, go to www.eaton.com/counterfeit.  

Check the link below for tips on how to combat counterfeiting.

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