Counterfeited: How Illegal Knockoffs Harm Outdoor Brands

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This story originally appeared in the April/May Gear Guide issue of Climbing Magazine, on newsstands now.

Rick Momsen and Stefani Dawn of Climb-On Maps researching approach Beta in Red Rock, Nevada.

Rick Momsen and Stefani Dawn of Climb-On Maps researching approach Beta in Red Rock, Nevada.

I was blindsided. It never crossed my mind that a niche product like rock-climbing approach/descent maps—the Climb-On Maps my husband, Rick Momsen, and I have been selling since 2017—would be ripped off. Was I concerned about our maps being copied by climbers who didn’t want to spend the money? Sure. Did I think professional hoodlums would go after our business? Never. But there it was: Some asshole was selling an unauthorized version of our City of Rocks, Idaho, map at Amazon.com.

Last Thanksgiving, Rick and I were preparing for an out-of-
country excursion, so I needed to link our website to Amazon for map fulfillment. I pulled up the City of Rocks map page in Amazon, copied the link, then saw something strange: red text that read “usually ships within 1–2 months.” What? I read the rest of the listing, which had the wrong title and info; it also said “Sold and shipped by Amazon.com,” whereas our listing reads “Sold by Climb-On Maps and fulfilled by Amazon.” Then it hit me: This was fraud.

Climb-On Maps is a two-person business—me and Rick. In 2016, we quit our jobs, sold our house, and spent two years living off our savings, putting in absurd hours in extreme heat, cold, and rain to create our first four maps, to Red Rock, Joshua Tree, Smith Rock, and City of Rocks. We hiked over 1,800 miles—crawling beneath rocks and meeting rattlesnakes face-to-face, navigating steep boulderfields, and traversing crumbly, unprotectable ledges. We applied Rick’s 20-plus years of GIS (geographic information systems)/map-making skills and my years of data-collection and visualization experience to produce something of beauty and value for the sport we love. What did these thugs using Amazon do? They just pressed the “copy” button.

As is visible from the rich detail shown here, creating an accurate, reliable approach map is a time-consuming, arduous process.

As is visible from the rich detail shown here, creating an accurate, reliable approach map is a time-consuming, arduous process.

Sadly, we are far from the first business owners to fall victim. The fact that a niche product like Climb-On Maps is being targeted only illustrates the extent of this scourge. Google “counterfeit” and “Amazon” or “eBay” and you will see story after story of small American businesses having their reputations damaged or even being driven to their graves by counterfeiters. As but one example, a Forbes article shows video clips of the inventor of the Forearm Forklift, the revolutionary appliance-moving straps, breaking down in tears because his business is on the verge of collapse from counterfeiting. And while we often associate counterfeiting with designer brand names like Levi, Gucci, and Prada, counterfeiters have infiltrated almost all consumer domains, from pharmaceuticals to condoms to the outdoor industry. Brands like The North Face, Patagonia, Petzl, Mountain Hardwear, Columbia Sportswear, and Arc’teryx have even been ripped off.

The impacts of counterfeiting

Counterfeiting has exploded in recent years thanks to online marketplaces and fraudulent websites. It is estimated that in 2017, counterfeit sales were over $1 trillion—currently the largest illegal enterprise worldwide. American companies alone lost at least $250 billion and 750,000 jobs that year due to counterfeiting.

Given our experience, I decided to reach out to other outdoor brands. As I learned, we weren’t alone. Arc’teryx and Metolius have experienced counterfeiting primarily with non-safety-related items like clothing or hangboards. Their representatives speculated that the more complex safety-related items aren’t profitable to counterfeit. Daniel Gebel, of Edelrid’s Innovation and Products division, echoed this sentiment, indicating that setting up factory-tooling for many climbing products is expensive, while pricing (and resulting profits) are comparatively low. Although a number of climbing manufacturers, including Edelrid, Butora, and Maxim Ropes, told me they’d so far escaped counterfeiting, Petzl has had both recreational and professional safety equipment copied. This includes VASAK crampons (the counterfeits have been reported to fold and break on the first day of use), the SPATHA Knife, TIKKA headlamp, and ASCENCION ascenders.

As with the VASAK example, the counterfeiters seem to have no qualms releasing substandard copies onto the market. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) website, “Last year the CBP seized more items that pose health and safety risks than ever before”—from fake Viagra with toxic ingredients, to faulty phone chargers that are a fire hazard, to condoms made with substandard materials, to less-than-precise counterfeit guns. Moreover, many of the fakes are created in child-labor sweatshops that could care less about working conditions or toxins. And the money received from counterfeit sales has been directly traced to criminal enterprises that involve drugs, terrorism, and human trafficking. These are not “the good guys.”

The maze-like City of Rocks, ID, which took Climb-On Maps 1.5 months of research and then 2 months to map.

The maze-like City of Rocks, ID, which took Climb-On Maps 1.5 months of research and then 2 months to map.

Then there’s the financial impact, especially on small businesses like ours that operate on slim margins. Companies like Arc’teryx and Petzl have to spend significant dollars to monitor, track, and chase down counterfeiters. Arc’teryx Consigliere (crime advisor) Tom Herbst refers to the problem as ongoing—like whack-a-mole—while Petzl states that they’re “constantly fighting against counterfeiting through legal procedures with the courts of competent jurisdiction, in order to ensure the destruction of the counterfeit production facilities.” These legal costs can, in turn, get handed down to consumers in the form of higher prices—which, ironically, may drive consumers to seek lower prices on the Internet, potentially fueling further counterfeiting.

The role of Amazon and other online marketplaces

One reason it’s so difficult to stop counterfeit sales is because major online marketplaces like Amazon profit from it—they have no real financial incentive to pursue counterfeiters since it would hurt their bottom line by reducing the number of items sold. While Amazon claims to have clean hands, and will fall back on their policy—“Products offered for sale on Amazon must be authentic. The sale of counterfeit products is strictly prohibited”—it may not be so cut and dry. It all comes down to a handful of practices by Amazon that are now under legal scrutiny.

Firstly, Amazon commingles fake and genuine goods in their warehouses. Here’s what happens: You buy a real Arc’teryx jacket, paying the full price, from an approved Arc’teryx retailer selling on Amazon, but you get shipped a substandard copy. This occurs because, in the warehouse, the “same” items have identical internal reference codes independent of the retailer. So, for convenience and efficiency, an Amazon employee grabs the nearest Arc’teryx jacket, unaware they’re sending you a knockoff. Secondly, Amazon makes it easy to open new accounts with little verification of authenticity. If one fraudulent account gets shut down, the criminals can turn around and open a new account under a different name. This happens at other third-party websites like eBay as well. And finally, Amazon has created a loophole that counterfeiters can exploit with its “Ships from and sold by Amazon.com” tag, which is what happened to us at Climb-On Maps.

To make sense of this all, it helps to understand how Amazon works. Since 2002, Amazon has been a third-party platform in which independent businesses like ours can sell products via a centralized online resource (Seller Central). Here, when the company ships the product themselves, you will see “Ships from and Sold by [Company Name]”; when the company pays Amazon to store product in an Amazon warehouse and then ship it, you’ll see “Sold by [Company Name] and fulfilled by Amazon.” In Seller Central, companies might either be legitimate dealers of real products or fly-by-night vendors peddling knockoffs. And while you can look up the “sold by” company name to see if they’re an approved dealer, counterfeiters will make minor, unnoticeable changes to confuse consumers: For example, counterfeited Petzl items have had “Petzel” stamped on them. Meanwhile, there’s also Vendor Central, in which Amazon buys products from manufacturers at wholesale prices and then sells them at retail. (They also manufacture and sell their own brands, such as AmazonBasics.) These direct-retail items are listed as “Shipped from and sold by Amazon.com”—a tag you might be led to believe implies the items are “real.” However, this is not always the case, and sales of counterfeit items can happen in either Seller Central or Vendor Central. (The Climb-On Maps fraud occurred through Vendor Central.)

Good listing: Climb-On Maps official page at Amazon’s Seller Central.

Good listing: Climb-On Maps official page at Amazon’s Seller Central.

Illegal listing: The fraudulent knockoff page (“Climb On Maps”) at Amazon’s Vendor Central.

Illegal listing: The fraudulent knockoff page (“Climb On Maps”) at Amazon’s Vendor Central.

Our best guess is that Amazon contracted with some unknown company (“Climb On Maps”—fake name, no hyphen) to sell a City of Rocks map that we (the trademark and copyright owners) did not manufacture or sell to this fraudulent company. Upon discovery of the illegal listing, we filed a report with the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center and demanded that Amazon shut down the listing—which Amazon did only after several weeks of strenuous exchanges. (Amazon’s fraud-reporting process is not what I would call user-friendly.)

You might wonder about Amazon’s legal liability in such cases, since American-made products are protected by patents, trademarks, and copyrights. Plenty of business owners have litigated, all for naught. Over and over, the courts have ruled in Amazon’s (and eBay’s) favor. The winning argument is that Amazon (via Seller Central) and eBay are third-party platforms—the counterfeiter is the criminal, not the website. And, since the majority of the fraudsters are operating outside the States, it is extremely difficult for American businesses to obtain legal redress or financial remuneration.

However, Vendor Central may end up being the legal wedge that helps solve this issue, since Amazon is no longer just a third-party platform but instead a direct buyer. In 2016, Apple discovered that 90 percent of the iPhone devices, power products, and lightning cables they purchased directly from Amazon (via Vendor Central) were counterfeit. Through incredible pressure on Amazon, Apple got Amazon to reveal their illegal supplier, Mobile Star. Even though Amazon was the actual seller, Apple targeted their lawsuit against Mobile Star. But Amazon itself is not out of hot water: It is now being sued by other companies for participating in “direct counterfeit sales.” In October 2017, Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes Benz, filed a lawsuit against Amazon accusing them of partaking in the counterfeiting market by selling fake Mercedes wheel hubs. According to Forbes, the suit may finally “have uncovered the smoking gun that could legally prove that Amazon is a direct seller of counterfeit products” via their “sold by and ships from Amazon.com” process. And, in 2018, the tech start-up Fuse Chicken filed a similar lawsuit against Amazon for directly selling counterfeit products. Unfortunately these lawsuits can take years, and, as of press time, the suits are still awaiting trial.

Possible solutions

“What’s next?” is the trillion-dollar question. Any business nowadays needs to be diligent about monitoring counterfeits. As for Climb-On Maps, we have struggled with how to proceed: Do we stop doing business with Amazon, even though it provides exposure, and accounts for about 40 percent of our sales (the rest is from our own site and retail shops)? Do we remain listed on Amazon but stop having them fulfill our product—and either fulfill orders ourselves or find another company to do so? Or do we keep things “as is,” with Amazon fulfilling our shipping? Our business sense makes us inclined to remain listed, but our ethical conscience has us leaning toward removing Climb-On Maps altogether and only selling the maps directly from our site or via outdoor shops.

At the purely consumer level, it is certainly wise to protect ourselves from unwittingly purchasing counterfeits (see sidebar below). But as a society, let’s go further. Spread the word about the black market and its human and environmental costs. When seeking a good deal, make sure the vendor is legitimate. Recognize and value the services that legitimate businesses provide, including jobs, consumer interface, and traceable and ethical manufacturing processes—be proud to buy from them. Politically motivated people might send emails urging Amazon to reevaluate its business practices or Congress to allocate more funding to seek out, remove, and shut down counterfeit operations.

I have a fantasy that US-based companies like Amazon will flex their economic power to stop feeding the counterfeit monster. But, as the saying goes, ultimately, the global is local. So perhaps the most effective way to combat counterfeiting is to support your local outdoor gear shop—this ends up being win-win-win on many levels, and gives the counterfeiters no easy way to take your money.

Protect yourself against counterfeiting

  • Be wary of deep discounts—but note that discounted items are not always fake. Sometimes counterfeits will be priced higher than the authentic item.

  • Look for clues like minor differences in the name, factual inaccuracies, or poor use of English on packaging or product descriptions.

  • On Amazon, look on the right side of the page to determine the seller, and then look them up on the manufacturer website to see if they’re an approved vendor. “Shipped from and sold by Amazon.com” does not mean the product is real.

  • Beware overly long ship times. Either the product is being shipped from overseas or there is no intent to ever ship it. (Because Amazon pays vendors every 14 days, ship times longer than 14 days allow the fraudsters to get paid before they ever have to ship a product.)

  • Thecounterfeitreport.com lists counterfeit items with photos, while stopfakes.gov lets you report fraud.

  • Be wary of sites that ship from China and state that the product is “genuine.” According to the Harvard Business Review, around 86 percent of counterfeit items come from China and Hong Kong.

  • Be extra careful when shopping online. It is estimated that 60 to 75 percent of the items on eBay are fake, while estimates range from 13 to 50 percent for Amazon.
  • If you believe you’ve purchased a counterfeit, contact the manufacturer of the real item. Send them your product to verify its authenticity—if it’s fake, they’ll certify it as such so you can get a credit-card refund. The manufacturer can then destroy the product and/or begin investigations.

For more gear coverage, check out the April/May Gear Guide issue of Climbing Magazine, on newsstands now, and listen to the latest episode of our podcast for an interview with Black Diamond climbing category director Kolin Powick.

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