Surrounded by impostors, what’s a consumer to do?

You’re surrounded by fakes. The clothes you wear could be fake. The money you use? Not real, maybe. Even your “friends” on social media are sometimes fake.

What’s a consumer to do?

We’ve had a lively conversation about authenticity during the last two weeks, dissecting the problem of counterfeit electronics and phone cards. But as it turns out, the problem runs much deeper.

Fakes are everywhere.

Take the money you use, for example. You’ve heard about criminals printing counterfeit bills in their basement, but what about minting bogus coins? Yes, coins. One U.K.-based counterfeiter recently was sentenced to jail time for his role in forging more than £10,000 worth of counterfeit £1 and £2 coins. Apparently, the fakes weren’t that convincing, and wouldn’t have even fooled a vending machine. But still.

How about fake friends? Honestly, you can now pay a company to “like” and “follow” you on social media. So if you know someone with millions of Twitter followers or hundreds of thousands of Facebook “likes” and you’re wondering — “How’d they get so popular?” — well, now you have one possible answer.

Maybe some of their friends aren’t real.

It’s an upside-down, confusing world for consumers like you. Even when you buy a fake, like, say, fur, you might be getting … a fake.

Earlier this year, three clothing retailers settled Federal Trade Commission charges that they misled consumers by marketing products containing “faux fur,” when in fact, the products contained real fur. I’m not kidding. The government even announced it would tighten its disclosure rules related to fur.

All of which begs the question: How can you tell if a fake is a fake?

Don’t believe the labels. In the Information Age, labels lie. Everything from the number of people following you on Twitter to the tag on your designer jacket can be faked. Some things, like holograms on electronics, are harder to fake than others, but virtually nothing is 100 percent foolproof. Nothing!

I consider myself a skeptic, but I never thought people could — or would — try to buy fake friends until some of my friends actually did it. Why? To make themselves look more popular, which, in an era of personal branding translates into more money and a higher profile. Sigh. Common sense should tell you that no one except maybe one of the Kardashians has a million real friends. Or even a hundred thousand real friends.

If it doesn’t work, it might as well be a fake. Our definition of “fake” is really limited, which is too bad. A fake product means something that isn’t authentic, strictly speaking. But during the last few weeks, in reading your comments and hearing your feedback, it’s become clear that a fake product is one that doesn’t work as promised. The fraud is that you paid money for something that doesn’t work.

If you use that definition, it’s safe to say we’re surrounded by even more fakes than we believe. How many products break down only weeks or months after their limited “warranty” expires? How many leave a trail of unhappy customers in their wake? (If you don’t know the answer, check your garage. That’s where a lot of disappointing consumer products go after they die.) I’ll say it again: If it doesn’t work, it’s a fake.

What you don’t know can hurt you. Information is your best defense against fake and fraudulent products. While it’s true that some information can be manipulated, a little digging can reveal the truth about any product, even when a company is trying to bury it. At a time when savvy corporations have “command centers” that control and shape their digital destiny, you have to stay a step ahead of the spin doctors.

In my last book, “Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, And Shady Deals,” I shared my secrets for how to hone your search skills so you can spot these fakes. I’ll give you the Reader’s Digest version: If you pay attention to more than just the first page of “search” results on Google or Bing, you’ll find plenty of truth. Most reputation management companies focus their efforts on the first few search results for a client, but ignore the rest. You shouldn’t.

Next time you go shopping, don’t get taken by a fake, or by a real thing that will end up being a fake. Get informed and don’t believe everything you read, especially if it’s on the label.

Is it too difficult to tell a "fake" from the real thing?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Rebecca

    Fakes really are everywhere. For the most part, I think I’m able to tell the difference. I do my research before dropping any serious money, and I can spot a bootleg purse from across the room.

    While reading about the infomercial scammer Kevin Trudeau recently, I came across a fascinating website dedicated to exposing “health-related frauds, myths, fads, fallacies, and misconduct,” ranging from ridiculous to dangerous to downright illegal. If you have some time, I would really recommend checking it out. There’s useful information and some really great articles about scammers that push things like vitamins to cure cancer.

  • jmtabb

    Because it’s not enough to have fake friends in life — you can also have fake friends in death:

  • Deb Kauffman

    I was passed 3 $20 bills a few years ago, that were counterfeit, by my bank! When I realized it, in trying to pay for something, and was told it was counterfeit, I went back to the bank and was told, “sorry, once you leave the teller, we are not responsible.” I had to cash a large check for shopping (I am not a fan of credit cards, and having a budget, and using cash makes it easier to stick to a budget for me) a week later. As the teller handed me my money, I stood there and checked each bill, holding up the line. The manager asked me to step aside, when I told why I was doing what I was doing. I asked her if I stepped aside, and I found a fake, could I hand it back? “NO!” I kept my place, checked each bill, all was ok, that time. However, I was talking to someone else later in the week, and he said, “Banks lose money when they get fake bills handed back. They are supposed to turn them in to the Treasury Department, but most banks hold them til the holidays and dump them back into circulation then. Yup, it was Christmas time when this happened to me! btw, I closed my account with that bank.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I seriously doubt that any bank manager is going to risk going to the federal penitentiary by purposely passing counterfeit money to save his employer money

  • Deborah Orth

    I tend agree. 1st $20’s usually receive less scrutiny than say $50’s or $100’s. Also if the bank was intentionally passing bad currency intentionally I would think that eventually a employee (especially a disgruntled one) would blow the whistle on the bank. Lastly I was taught by my parents to treat credit cards like they are cash. If I don’t have the money to pay the bill in full when it comes due I DON’T BUY!!

  • DavidYoung2

    Perhaps if we didn’t care about labels and weren’t so obsessed about trying to ‘impress’ people, the some of the fakes would go away.

    If nobody gave a toss that it’s a Rolex or Louis Vuitton, why make a fake (besides, most people ASSUME those are fakes and even if they’re not, they’re still made in some Chinese factory – oh, you have an overpriced Chinese handbag. How nice for you!)

    News alert – that’s not really “The Ultimate Driving Machine” and you just paid $8,000 too much to get a blue and white badge. And, yes, you can buy fake BMW badges to stick on your Camry, which is pretty darn funny.

  • Christopher Elliott

    Oh, THAT is funny. Do you have any pictures?

  • DavidYoung2

    For $10.00, your Camry becomes a BMW. A lot of people turn their standard BMWs into M-series with a few fake badges and logos.

  • Christopher Elliott


  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Like you said, he’d have to keep his employees very happy otherwise he’s in prison and his career over.

    Besides, banks keep track of every penny. Once I withdrew $1000 in cash from my bank. The teller gave me $1100 by accident. Within the hour, the operations officer called my cell phone asking if I received an extra $100. I checked my wallet and yup, there was an extra $100. It took less than an hour for the discrepency to discovered.

  • MarkKelling

    So what did the bank do with the bills they gave you when you went back? If the bills are fake, they are required by law to collect them and forward to the Fed. You should not have been allowed to leave the bank without them verifying the bills. Or did you spend them somewhere else that did not notice?

    The banks I worked for and the ones I deal with currently do nothing like what you claim. Every counterfeit bill is charged back to the person giving it to them and that customer is out the money, not the bank. Tellers are fired if they receive counterfeits and don’t catch them. No bank teller I ever worked with would knowingly hand fake money to a customer – ever.

    I’m not saying it is impossible to get a counterfeit from a bank, especially a good counterfeit. A not quite honest teller might receive some and then be desperate to get rid of them so they won’t lose their job. However, I hope this would be a very rare occurrence.

  • MarkKelling

    They track every thing so closely because the tellers will get fired for being off as little as $10. The one giving you the extra cash was probably put on final warning and not fired only because they found the money.

  • MarkKelling

    I don’t have a problem with fakes because I don’t have any desire to own anything with a flashy label. Not that I don’t buy nice, well made, items because I do – and probably pay less than I would for a cheap fake anyway. I just don’t see any value in advertising for a company by having things with their flashy logos all over them.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Once, I cashed a check at an employer’s bank. I went to my bank to deposit the cash. My teller told me one of the $100s was fake. I went back to the original bank and they filed a DOJ report, and kept the $100. I was just SOL

  • Rebecca

    I was shopping for a TransAm years ago and the dealer tried to convince me to buy one without ram air (which I wanted), because he could just order the hood and put it on so it would LOOK like it had it.

  • Cybrsk8r

    While I’m sure someone would do this, I can’t think of any reason to make people believe I bought a BMW. I’m not nearly arrogant enough to drive one.

    In a poll I voted in once on a site called “”, BMW drivers won in a landslide as the most arrogant drivers on the road.

    BTW. BMW stands for “Big Money Wasted”.

  • Barry Moss

    I received a counterfeit $20 from a bank ATM one evening. This is a bank (although not a banch) that I had been doing business with for 25 years. I went in the next day and spoke to the manager, who looked up my info with the bank, and promptly issued a replacement bill.

  • Barry Moss

    I think that confusing the issue of counterfeits products (or money) with quality issues is a poor one. One is out and out criminal fraud, the other is a matter of how good a product is. I will make a purchasing decision based on my experiences and the on-line reviews of a product. If a company consistently has poor quality ratings, I’ll avoid them like the plague, unless I need a really cheap disposable item where I don’t care about longevity.

  • y_p_w

    Bills sticking in ATMs used to be considered a cost of doing business for banks.

    New bills are desirable because they rarely jam the mechanism and because they can load more than twice as many in the same volume. That means fewer trips The alternative would be to load machines with used bills, but they have to be sorted to avoid bills that are in too poor condition to reliably use.

    I haven’t received a new bill from an ATM in a while.

  • y_p_w

    Nobody remembers the VW Beetle with the Rolls-Royce grill driven by Willie Mays Hayes in “Major League”?

  • y_p_w

    For several years the Ford Mustang GT had a faux hood scoop. It sort of looked like one and was meant to look like some sort of wire screen. If you looked closely it was just a piece of dimpled plastic.

    I’ve seen odd stuff before, including (Honda) VTEC stickers on Mazdas and a TRD (Toyota Racing Development) sticker on a Civic.

  • Lindabator

    LOVED that one!

  • Global Nomad couple

    What else can you expect in a fake society powered by fake monetary system? The only difference between fake and the “real thing” is that a real thing requires that at least one fake copy of it exists. Without fakes there can not be any real things.