Imagine that you are one of the world’s leading suppliers of optical rifle sights. An irate customer is standing in front of you brandishing one of your most popular products. He is so angry that he almost throws it in your face. He has spent a lot of money buying this sight because he wanted the best and he has not got the best because he has bought a knock-off, outwardly indistinguishable from the real thing, perfect to the last detail but inside, the part that matters, it is a cheap substitute.
QUESTION: which is going to hurt you most?
- Losing the original sale?
- Refunding for a sale you never made?
- The loss of your reputation?
- Being hit over the head with a knock-off rifle scope?
Bootlegging is not a new problem and China has long been regarded as the “evil empire” of bootlegging. In March 2006 a leading manufacturer of rifle and pistol optical sights – let’s call them “DeadShot” (no names, no pack drill) testified to the U.S. Senate about the problem of Chinese counterfeit items. Once cheap copies make their way into the marketplace, they lose their identity and unknowing or unscrupulous sellers can list them as the real thing. Unsuspecting buyers wound up paying for what they believed to be a top quality item, only to find out that they had a cheap Chinese copy. In addition to the risk of someone getting cheated on a resale, the manufacturers were concerned that the poorly made optics would damage their own reputations and brand names, which had been established on the perceived quality of products and service. The copies were not legal and the genuine manufacturers quite correctly wanted them to be neither listed nor purchased by anyone. At that time DeadShot and several other companies were in legal battles with the Chinese companies in an effort to make them stop making the copies altogether.
Seven years ago there were some obvious ways of spotting knock-offs. Unreasonably low sales prices (bearing in mind the significant shipping cost if being delivered from China) were a clear indication. If the seller said that they offered to warranty the sight themselves then it was probably a fake. Most manufacturers’ warranties are handled by sending the sight to their factory where they are re-tested by computer and verified as a genuine article and most sights are computer tested before being shipped from the U.S. factory. The packaging could be a giveaway, too. A nice box printed in exactly the correct colours, soft bag, printed instructions, warranty card, shrink wrap and so on had to be correct and complete and if not then they may not be original, which is a bad sign.
In 2006 DeadShot were alarmed at the number of their top-selling riflescopes – quality products – that were arriving at the firm’s U.S. headquarters for service. These turned out to be counterfeit products not manufactured by DeadShot and consequently not covered by the DeadShot full lifetime warranty. They put a raft of precautions in place. The DeadShot website provides descriptions of their products together with examples of how to determine if a device is authentic or fake, thus offering potential purchasers the opportunity to educate themselves prior to purchasing a DeadShot product over the internet. DeadShot issue customer alerts to potential purchasers of their products, particularly aimed at those considering making a purchase via the internet, warning them of bogus DeadShot products. DeadShot also use a serial number tracking based system for all its riflescopes, so if a customer thinks that a scope that is suspect, this can readily be checked for authenticity with the manufacturer.
An example of bogus riflesight that I examined last year had ‘DeadShot’ laser engraved on the bottom of the turret in a silver etch and the black ring on the objective was etched in white and did not include the name ‘DeadShot’. Authentic DeadShot riflescopes are always engraved black on black and have the name ‘DeadShot’ engraved on the black ring. The counterfeit scopes usually did not bear the DeadShot logo, which all genuine new DeadShot scopes carry.
In 2015 the situation has become trickier as the counterfeiters have become more professional and skilful. These days counterfeits are often marked, branded and marketed just like the real items they imitate (this is less of a problem if the manufacturer admits to producing “replica” or “clone” items, but they are not, particularly when being promoted on-line). They make exact copies, even down to the serial number and trade mark. They no longer offer their products at a bargain price but quote the full retail price. Sub-standard reject and counterfeit sights were sold to U.S. customers through on-line auctions, like eBay through sellers based in Hong Kong and Shanghai China and some other Asian countries. Some still are but bootleggers now also break in to the supply chain closer to home.
SCENARIO: a 20 foot container of rifle scopes arrives at a port in southern Asia and is added to a container stack to be trans-shipped in two days. That night a trailer unit arrives and takes the container away, returning it next morning. Only now it is full of bootleg rifle scopes. The supply chain is compromised and the bootleggers have a container-load of genuine sights. It happened.
Bootlegging sights is no longer a cottage industry run from a garage in Shanghai; it is big business. Hunting with guns is a sporting activity that requires the right equipment and manufacturers charge a realistic price for their products. You pay for a quality item and you expect to get what you pay for. Bootlegging can spoil your sport, damage the manufacturer and, if they find their way into the police and security arenas (as they are), have even more serious consequences.
One way of safeguarding genuine products is to incorporate a chemical substance (called a ‘taggant’) into the coating of the sight, or into the paint highlighting the numbers on the scope’s dials, into the logo or into pretty much any part of the product, which, when exposed to particular types of light, glows a specific colour. One U.S.-based manufacturer of this type of solution can even tune their product to indicate the date of manufacture. When a sight is returned as sub-standard that provides a definite way of proving that the customer has got hold of a bootleg item so (as the lawyers say) caveat emptor or “you bought a junk item and it is not our responsibility to replace it for you”.
A wide range of suppliers unique marking systems which they claim will protect products from counterfeiting. Not all of these claims are genuine. A worldwide security marking provider, DataTraceDNA/DataDots, has, it is claimed by the Courier Newspaper of Australia, duped Novartis, a global pharmaceutical company, into using its security solution. What is apparent from the investigation is that, far from being unique to the security provider, the security marking product is based on bulk chemicals supplied as phosphors for the lighting industry. The inevitable consequence of this, the newspaper claims, is that the entire stock of Novartis “‘Voltaren” ampoules sold in Australia using the taggant has been compromised.
The counterfeit product market is booming and becoming more dangerous as the focus moves from clothing, shoes and handbags to medicines, pesticides and firearms. I came across an H&K G3 machine-rifle a few months ago, destined for a prestige customer in the Middle East. It was perfect in every detail but one: H&K assured me that they do not make gold-plated firearms! Nope, it was not a Khyber Pass Special (my wife’s uncle owns a Pakistani copy of an S&W K38 that would have been all but perfect if they had spelled ‘Wesson’ with two “esses”) but copied in a properly tooled-up private arms factory. The International Chamber of Commerce estimates that by the end of 2015 the economic value of counterfeiting will be $1.7 trillion and while many of the products counterfeited are fashion and apparel items an increasing proportion of goods compromised by this form of economic piracy include weapons, ammunition, accessories and military electronics.
If you are a manufacturer, however, small-scale, you need the products of an anti-counterfeiting/security marking company that maintains a stringent control of their suppliers, manufactures their own marking chemicals and designs their own detector systems. No security marking system is infallible but the professional approach of the better companies in the market, and the stringent control regimes they have in place, will give you security for your products and allow your customers to buy with confidence.
 Steve Hargreaves @CNNMoney