Queer Eye for the Straight Blog, or How to Spot a Counterfeit Perfume

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As an IP lawyer in China, I’ve come across a lot of fake stuff over the years. If there’s money to be made off a product, someone will try to copy it. However, most of the time the fakes in question are rather mundane items — shoes, batteries, razor blades. Nothing to write home about.

Every once in a while, though, you get reminded that the world of counterfeiting is a vast, wacky landscape of weirdness.

Over the weekend, I was reading about how US Customs busted up this Chinese counterfeiting ring in New York. The felons in this case were trafficking in counterfeit perfume, which got me thinking. Who buys fake perfume, and why don’t I know anything about this subset of counterfeiting?

A few details from US Customs:

A federal grand jury in Brooklyn, N.Y., returned a two-count indictment against three Chinese nationals for trafficking in counterfeit goods and conspiracy, following an investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

Shaoxia Huang, Shaoxiong Zhou and Shaowu Zhou, all from Guangdong Province, China, allegedly imported more than 37,000 individual units of counterfeit cosmetic fragrances into the United States. According to the indictment returned on Tuesday, the counterfeit perfume, believed to have been manufactured in China, bore trademarks belonging to well-known fragrance brands. They were also packaged in a manner likely to be confused with genuine fragrances sold under these well-known brands.

I’ve never really done any anti-counterfeiting work for a cosmetics company, so this sort of thing is completely new to me. That being the case, I can come up with two possible scenarios for these guys.

First, their end users are buying this perfume, which is in packaging that resembles famous brands and carries counterfeit trademarks of famous brands, because they believe they are getting the real thing.

Second, they are buying the fake product with the knowledge that it is fake, but with the expectation that the product (or perhaps just the bottle?) will be close enough to the real thing to fool friends, colleagues, etc.

Here’s my thinking. Perfume is a strange product — it is a fragrance, not something you look at, touch, or taste. On the other hand, it is a product that is purchased on a brand-name basis (i.e., trademarks are important).

So let’s say Joe Six-pack perfume buyer goes into his neighborhood bodega in Brooklyn for his fragrance fix and notices that his favorite scent, Parfum des Aisselles, is on sale. Wow! Twelve ounces for six bucks, what a deal!

Questions:

  1. Has Joe been tipped off that the product is fake because of the low price? Or perhaps the owner of the bodega tells him that this shipment of Parfum des Aisselles “fell off a truck” somewhere between LaGuardia Airport and a warehouse adjacent to LaGuardia Airport.
  2. Do perfume counterfeiters ever try to approximate the scent of the real product, or is that way too much to expect from fake fragrances? (see below)
  3. If Joe knows it’s a fake, why would he buy it knowing that the scent doesn’t match up to the real thing? Perhaps Joe just wants to pass it off to his idiot girlfriend who won’t look past the packaging?
  4. Why would anyone buy a product named Parfum des Aisselles anyway? (Wait a minute. Why am I criticizing my own hypothetical?)

The special agent in charge of the Chinese-counterfeiters-in-Brooklyn case warned about health dangers, so my first thought was that this stuff probably didn’t smell like the real deal.

Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

I don’t want to keep you all guessing here, so I managed a bit of research while I was eating dinner. Apparently the fake perfume problem has been getting worse in recent years, and there are quite a few sites out there devoted to explaining how you can spot the fakes and warning you of the dire consequences should you opt for the cheap stuff. My warning to you: all of these sites have time-consuming video ads that you have to wade through to get at the articles, so be prepared to be bombarded with cosmetics adverts.

Here’s one horror story I saw in a well-cited Harper’s article:

“I sprayed the Red Door on,” she says. “It was a little strong, not the same smell I was used to. I put it on my wrist and in my elbow crease and a little behind my ear. Later, I looked in the mirror. It looked like I was sunburnt on those areas. My skin felt extremely hot, like a welt was forming on my neck.” After an emergency call to her dermatologist and a dose of prescription cortisone, she was fine — but cured of her desire to try iffy fragrances.

Sounds like the counterfeiters managed to get the scent in the right ballpark, so I guess they’re at least trying to match the trademark with the smell. But I guess you want to avoid this sort of thing:

[F]akes have been found to contain contaminated alcohol, antifreeze, urine, and harmful bacteria.

Icky. Not exactly the sort of thing I’d want on my skin.

Information I found on another site also suggests that the counterfeiters try to approximate the original scent:

[A]t first sight is rather difficult to realize but you’ll notice the difference when you’ll start using the perfume as you’ll discover that the smell doesn’t last.

Even more interesting:

Examine, first of all, its scent and see if it’s even. If it is rather pungent with unusual fragrances, and if you know the original smell, then it will be easy for you to compare. Most of the counterfeit perfumes have a pungent scent. Test its liquidity. Fake perfumes can feel oily on the skin. You can test it on a window. Also, watch for darker spots, transparency and color uniformity. Original perfumes should be clear.

Genuine fragrances have three layers: top notes, middle notes and base notes. fake perfumes won’t smell like real ones as they might not have one layer of notes. If the smell of the perfume fades quickly after you apply it, it means that is a fake.

Wow. This is all much more complicated than I thought. Note that this is a multimillion dollar problem for the fragrance industry, which battles not only the high end crooks who put chemists to work approximating famous scents, but also low end wannabes who fill up little bottles with anti-freeze and slap together lame-ass labels with misspelled words. Most of the fight against these guys is on the trademark infringement front (FYI: here in China it would be either a trademark action or unfair competition).

I hope you’ve enjoyed our brief visit to the world of misleading smells. Stay safe out there, folks, and be careful where you put your nose.

7 responses on “Queer Eye for the Straight Blog, or How to Spot a Counterfeit Perfume

  1. Koshi

    Plenty of fake smells out there Stan, both sold on the streets of New York (literally) and in the usual suspects like Shanghai silk markets

  2. Michelle Tsai

    China, perfume, two of my favorite topics.

    Even if you know the perfume, the different versions of the perfume can throw you off. Does that new bottle smell different because it’s a fake, or because it’s eau de toilette and you only know the eau de parfum?

    I love one of my perfumes in the EDP but hate it in the EDT — that’s how different they smell to me.

    Huge problem on eBay too.

    1. Stan Post author

      Yeah, as with just about any sort of counterfeit product these days, the online presence is a monster, and not just on sites like eBay and Taobao. The number of standalone fake cosmetics/perfume sites is surprisingly large.

  3. Bryan

    Hi Stan,

    Thanks for the article. As someone who used to manage anti-counterfeiting investigations and enforcement for a variety of cosmetic brands, I have quite a bit of experience with counterfeit perfume. The scope, scale and sophistication of the operations varies as you mention, but since packaging is quite cheap and can be sourced from any number of vendors in South China, the appearance of the products tend to be quite good. If the geniune bottle has raised or etched glass, the counterfeit typically will as well, but a counterfeit operation will rarely do everything “in-house”. The bottles and packaging needs to be sourced, which actually helps counterfeiters mitigate enforcement risk because the final product isn’t in possession of the culprit for very long.

    From an enforcement standpoint, perfume presents a unique opportunity for cosmetic brands to pursue criminal enforcement because of the higher production cost and retail value of fragrance–far high than that of a mascara tube, for example. I’ve seen brand owners work together quite well to target high volume exporters who act as an aggregator and export agent for re-sellers in international markets. The Middle East and North Africa are large markets for counterfeit perfume, with Yiwu or Guangzhou typically used as an export base.

    1. Stan Post author

      Counterfeit production and distribution networks are amazing these days. Globalization and the Net have made things difficult, to say the least. Although my law firm does a lot of anti-counterfeiting work, I’ve actually moved away from it personally in the past few years — it’s a tough fight. I have a lot of respect for the cops/prosecutors out there who have to roll up these networks.

  4. Robert Park

    While not a great thing, I’m guessing everyone can agree that counterfeit pharmaceuticals are still worse. If I understand, they’re the most counterfeited items in China, topping everything else?