Have you thought about the dangers associated with purchasing fake or counterfeit batteries? When you hear the term counterfeit, you may instinctively think of a fake $20 bill being passed at a neighborhood store.  Or you might be thinking of a shady-looking person selling “genuine Rolex watches” on the street corner in a big city.  However, the reality of today’s buying habits means that your definition of a counterfeit is more likely realizing the name-brand product you bought online is actually a fake.  And in 2020, consumers are shopping online more than ever before.  Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) said “The COVID-19 health crisis has made Americans more reliant on e-commerce sites for consumer goods, and has laid bare how little many of these sites are doing to protect their customers from unsafe and counterfeit goods.”

It is important to note that counterfeiting can mean several things.  The most obvious is a non-original product which is unlawfully labeled as an original.  Additionally, there are some dubious manufacturers that use clever names that look like a name brand product such as permanent markers labeled “Shoupie” instead of Sharpie®. There are also sellers that salvage used products or obtain factory rejects and sell them as original, new products.  All three of these scenarios are fraudulent practices that seek to take advantage of an unwary consumer.

Who gets hurt

It’s clear that consumers are taken advantage of when counterfeits are sold.  But the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) is also hurt with the most obvious impact being lost revenue.  The money that consumers spend on “original” products never makes it to the OEM but ends up in the hands of the counterfeiter.  Additionally, if the counterfeit product fails to meet the performance expectations of the consumer, the OEM’s brand is tarnished.  But it doesn’t end there.  The brand image of the retailer or distributor can also be damaged.  A consumer may decide not to buy from a website after receiving subpar products, never knowing the actual problem was a product that was not genuine after all.

Dangers of counterfeit batteries

While counterfeit jewelry or counterfeit memory cards can dissatisfy consumers, lithium-ion batteries have a safety aspect that represents an added risk to the consumer.  When we discuss who gets hurt by counterfeit batteries, we are also worried about consumers suffering physical harm.  Alexandre de Juniac, the CEO of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), said “In some cases, we see more effort going into stopping counterfeit production of Louis Vuitton bags than lithium batteries.  Both need attention. But lithium batteries are a safety risk.” 

Lithium-ion batteries made their mark nearly 30 years ago when Sony developed the first commercially available Li-Ion batteries for consumer products.  While lithium-ion batteries do not contain metallic lithium, there are still inherent risks based on a significant amount of energy stored in a small package and an electrolyte which is flammable.  However, the reason that lithium-ion batteries are ubiquitous, from cellphones to electric vehicles, is careful risk management and prioritizing consumer safety.  Companies making lithium-ion batteries and products that use lithium-ion batteries must focus on safety principles spanning from material selection, design safeguards, precise manufacturing controls, thoughtful system integration, and thorough testing.  The battery industry recognizes the safety risks and, as such, standards are abundant – more than a dozen standards specifically relating to lithium-ion battery safety (e.g. UN Manual of Tests and Criteria, UL 1642, and IEC 62133).

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) states “Often, manufacturers of counterfeit products neglect to use key components or skimp in the manufacturing process in order to save money. While cheaper prices are passed onto consumers, so too are the dangers.”  Furthermore, the CPSC says, “Fake consumer products are not tested for compliance to relevant safety standards.”

Why so many counterfeits?

Counterfeit batteries and their issues are abundant. When scanning product recalls listed on the CPSC website, there are numerous recalls for counterfeit batteries including counterfeits branded Nikon, Samsung, Blackberry, Xenon, and LG to name a few.  In addition, the CPSC’s SaferProducts.gov website, a site that allows users to report unsafe products, has multiple complaints of fake batteries causing safety-related incidents.  It is not known how many counterfeit battery incidents go unreported or how often OEM companies are blamed for safety issues caused by counterfeits.

 There are likely several reasons why counterfeit batteries flourish.  It may be due to the limited availability of OEM batteries.  Batteries can wear out and consumers want the right to repair their products to keep them working.  But OEMs, who prioritize consumer safety, may be reluctant to offer original batteries to the public.  Even if OEM batteries are available, consumers may select cheaper batteries and unwittingly purchase counterfeits.  Lastly, in rare instances, counterfeit batteries have accidentally entered the stream of commerce mixed with original batteries.

What can you do?

When you are shopping on Amazon, eBay, Newegg, Walmart.com, etc., how do you know if the battery is real or not?  The first step is to be wary of an incredible deal.  If the price seems too good to be true, it could be because the product is an inferior and unsafe counterfeit.

The next step is to scrutinize the product, the packaging, and the labeling.  Look for misspelling and look at logos; logos that look different than usual may be a sign that it’s a counterfeit.  Some companies, like Eneloop, Canon, and HP, try to educate consumers on how to spot a fake.  With e-commerce, it’s difficult to “see” the battery and the photo might be a stock photo, not the actual product you’re buying.  Unfortunately, you may not be able to tell until you have the battery in your hands.

Whenever possible, buy from OEM, making sure that you’re on the OEM site and not a fake site.  Be extra vigilant when buying from a non-authorized dealer or an individual.  Be sure to ask about the return policy.  Another piece of advice is to get a receipt and look for missing sales tax. Businesses selling counterfeit goods often don’t report their sales.

Lastly, you may decide the best approach to buying batteries is to buy from brick and mortar stores.

What Energy Assurance can do for you

Energy Assurance has several services that can help in thwarting counterfeits.  Energy Assurance offers inspections and teardowns which can differentiate original batteries from non-original versions.  Energy Assurance also offers battery safety testing to ensure the batteries meet relevant safety standards (such as UN Manual of Tests and Criteria, UL 1642, and IEC 62133).  Energy Assurance also can perform safety reviews aimed at finding gaps that might present a risk to consumers.  Ask the experts and assure your product’s performance, compliance, success.  

Author: Russ Gyenes