There's an old Russian proverb — "doveryai no proveryai" — that Ronald Reagan used a lot and translates to "Trust, but verify." It applies to a lot more than just politics. For instance, you don’t know who designed and built your stove or light bulb. How do you know it’s safe? The walls of your apartment are supposed to resist fire for two hours. How do you know if the design of that concept will actually work? That’s why there are standards, or guidelines and criteria against which a product can be judged, and certifications, which say a product meets those criteria. 

As long as people have been making things, there have been other people trying to sell fake versions for less, which is why you can buy an imitation Louis Vuitton bag or Rolex watch on Canal Street in New York. But these products are not going to kill you; a fake electrical product might.

That’s why every company that makes a product that uses electricity has to have it tested by a Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory (NRTL). Some of the laboratories go back decades or even centuries and are now an alphabet soup of names like CSA, NSF or UL. If there isn’t a certification label on a product, it’s not legal to sell it.

This is what they do with counterfeit products in France

This is what they do with counterfeit products in France (Photo: Getty Images)

From a business standpoint, the labels are a matter of safety and money. The general counsel for CSA, one of the testing laboratories, puts a number on the problem: "It is estimated that it [counterfeiting] accounts for more than 6 percent of world trade, or $450 billion per year. For individuals, counterfeit products are a serious safety threat. For industry, [fake products] represent a liability risk, a crisis in consumer confidence and a drain on profits. Furthermore, counterfeiting has been linked to money-laundering, terrorism and organized crime."

In Canada a few years ago, there was an apparent flood of products with fake certification markings on them around Christmas, notably things like lights, fans, extension cords and lamps, the stuff of dollar stores. In 2006, a Vancouver teacher bought glue guns stamped with a fake label, and the gun caught fire, severely burning one of her students. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police also seized thousands of extension cords and power bars with fake UL labels. These items melted and caught fire within minutes because they had undersized wiring and combustible casings. 

Most recently in the United States, the general counsel at TCP, a major manufacturer of LED bulbs, has filed a lawsuit (PDF here) against the CEO of the company, claiming, among other things, that CEO Ellis Yan had 40,000 LED lamps manufactured with the UL mark on them before they had received approval and certification. It turns out that these bulbs did not pass the flame-resistance tests. The lawsuit also alleges that there were an additional 900,000 bulbs that didn’t match the tested design, and that Yan ordered the bulbs be released into the market or he would fire everyone. I cannot repeat what he said next. 

A consumer probably wouldn’t be able to recognize a fake certification label on a product like this, or any product from a major manufacturer. But on a lot of cheap products that come from fly-by-night operations, there are things a consumer can look for. After the Canadian incidents, the government regulator came up with suggestions for the public that make sense:

  • Examine labels for quality before purchasing — they should not be blurred, torn or sloppily stamped on the product.
  • Peculiar grammar, misspellings and altered product names might be signs of fake labels.
  • Look for company information on the product packaging. (For example, the company’s name, mailing address, website or toll-free number.) If contact information has not been provided, the product or the label, or both, are likely fake.
  • Buy brands you know and trust, those made by reputable manufacturers.
  • Be cautious of Internet purchases — understand what you're getting and what you're not. If possible, check the country of origin and distributor, installation and performance data, maintenance and troubleshooting information, warranty and access to service.
  • Be skeptical if a price is too good to be true, if you're asked to pay cash only, or if you cannot obtain a receipt. If there is no brand name, or the name or logo are unknown, you may want to investigate further before buying.
  • Report suspicions right away to the appropriate standards organization, the retailer or the supplier.

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Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.