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Updated Oct 20, 2023

Online Searches Often Lead Customers to Counterfeit Goods

Casey Conway headshot
Casey Conway, Business Operations Insider and Senior Writer

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Regardless of your company’s size, industry or target customers, counterfeits and fraudulent advertisers may potentially impact your business and harm your brand. By taking the appropriate steps to vet organizations you conduct business with and improve your e-commerce website’s rankings, you can actively avoid many online scams – and help your customers do the same.

We’ll examine the problem of counterfeit sites, scams and potentially dangerous products, and share how businesses can protect themselves and their customers. 

Did You Know?Did you know

The supply chain and economic issues that arose during the pandemic opened the door for counterfeiters. As e-commerce sales increased rapidly, counterfeiters had a new opportunity to reach online customers.

Online searches lead to counterfeit products

The economic costs of counterfeiting and piracy are expected to reach nearly $3 trillion in 2022, with scammers duping unwitting consumers and businesses simply conducting everyday online searches. 

An often-cited 2019 Incorpro study found that up to 60 percent of all search results lead consumers to websites that peddle fake and potentially dangerous items. Researchers examined specific product searches in five industries: 

  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Car parts
  • Children’s products
  • Safety equipment
  • “White goods” like refrigerators and washing machines 

“Consumers are at risk of buying counterfeit and possibly harmful products as a result of clicking through results generated by search engines they trust,” said Simon Baggs, co-founder and CEO of Incopro. “At best, these products will be poor quality or below standard; at worst, they put consumers at risk of harm, particularly when buying pharmaceuticals or safety goods.” 

Examples of troubling search results included the following: 

  • Counterfeit drug sites: According to the survey, 60% of Google’s first-page results for a brand-name antibiotic called Bactrim led to websites that researchers believe were “very likely to be operating unlawfully.” While the biggest concern about counterfeit drugs (and the websites selling them) is their potential health and safety issues, researchers also discovered that these sites were more likely to be hacked, leading to potentially dangerous consequences for consumers’ private data.
  • Harmful teethers: Researchers found that when they searched for a “Comotomo teether,” nearly one-third of all results featured “potentially harmful products.” 
  • Counterfeit white goods: Consumers searching for new “white goods,” or common appliances like refrigerators and washing machines, were regularly sent to a website selling counterfeit products.

What can search engines do about fraudulent search results? 

Search engines play an unwilling and unwitting role in the problem of fraudulent search results. In a practice known as “malvertising,” fraudulent advertisers pay for top placement on Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo and other search engines’ results pages, hawking everything from fake banks to crypto wallets and imitating the IRS and other government agencies. 

Google – the world’s most-used search engine – has taken measures to reduce fraudulent listings, including increased Google Ads advertiser verification and scam detection. The company said that, in 2021, it removed or blocked 38.1 million ads from search results for misrepresentation, while 58.9 million were removed for financial policy violations. 

Despite its stricter policies, the company doesn’t seem able to manage counterfeiters as well as consumers and officials would like, and it’s easy to see how verifying every ad would take a much larger staff. 

Google faces the following challenges regarding how it handles fraudulent search results: 

  • Continued pressure from officials: The search giant remains under pressure from officials to get a better handle on its search results and advertisers, and antitrust lawsuits against the company demonstrate unresolved issues. 
  • Decrease in search quality: Some experts say the quality of organic search has greatly decreased as more ads appear on search pages. However, it’s difficult to quantify the actual results of some of the changes implemented to the algorithm over the years. 
  • Accusations of a monopoly on ad tech: Other Google disparagers have voiced concerns about the search engine’s monopoly on ad tech. The company services every step of buying and publishing ads via its online advertising platform Google Ad Manager. With advertisers estimated to spend more than $600 billion on digital ads worldwide in 2022, Google will remain a key intermediary until any changes are made to combat the monopoly.
Did You Know?Did you know

In addition to Google’s vast advertising services, the free Google for Small Business online portal helps small businesses access Google tools for business, including in-depth guides for retail stores, restaurants and product-based small businesses.

How to avoid counterfeit products and other scams

Businesses can fall prey to online counterfeiting schemes as easily as consumers – often with devastating results. Here are a few examples of B2B scams involving counterfeit products and fraudulent practices. 

  • Malware masquerading as employee monitoring software: Say a business owner conducts a Google search when choosing employee monitoring software for their company’s remote workers. They select a search result that’s actually a fraudulent advertisement. When they download the software, they infect their networks with malware, threatening business and customer data.
  • Email phishing scams: Phishing is a type of business email compromise scam. For example, a well-meaning employee may click on a link in a phishing email, thinking they’re addressing an urgent need for a purchase or to provide information. They may unwittingly cost the company money or invite a data breach.
  • False invoicing scams: Businesses can easily fall prey to this fraudulent practice. A scammer can fake an invoice from a legitimate company or present an invoice for services never rendered. 

Whether dealing with potential counterfeit goods or more typical fraud attempts, never hesitate to investigate a company further if you suspect it’s not legitimate. Here are some best practices for avoiding fraudulent sites and scammers:

  1. Verify a company’s legitimacy. Sometimes a quick Google search is all it takes to determine whether a company is the real deal. For instance, in the employee monitoring software example above, the business could avoid a malware infection by researching and downloading only the best employee monitoring software vetted by reviews and recommendations.
  2. Review company orders. Review invoices to ensure they’re legitimate and correct to thwart fraudulent companies that send invoices for something you never requested or purchased.
  3. Search for reviews. Find online reviews via Google or sites like the Better Business Bureau to ensure you’re dealing with a reputable company.
  4. Check a business’s social media platforms. Check the company’s social media presence. More than likely, it will have a LinkedIn business profile. See if it’s legitimate by reviewing the People and Posts tabs.
  5. Reach out. If you’re still uncertain about a company’s legitimacy, reach out via phone. Prepare yourself with questions or request a short video call if necessary.
TipTip

To protect your business, consider blocking websites known to be fraudulent or dangerous, including video streaming, counterfeit and inappropriate websites.

How to outrank fake sites

If you have counterfeit competitors outranking you on Google, they’re stealing your website traffic and sales. As a business owner selling online, there are a few things you can do to attempt to outrank counterfeits and reach your audience.

1. Build your website with technical SEO in mind.

Ensure your site uses a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL). This technology uses computer encryption to create an encrypted link between a browser and a web server. 

You can easily install an SSL certificate on your site if you don’t already have one. You can also deploy a monitoring service to alert you to potential hackers whose efforts to infiltrate your system could impact your SEO and rankings.

2. Keep your web design updated.

Website design matters more than many business owners realize. For example, a responsive and Google mobile-friendly website design can help you outrank fraudulent competitors while being customer-friendly. 

3. Create optimized web copy that answers searcher questions.

Using keywords isn’t the only way to rank well on Google. These days, quality content is critical. Your copy should answer searchers’ questions, and your content should be well organized. Avoid using duplicate content, which can confuse search engines. Additionally, improve your website or blog search engine ranking by publishing new content frequently.

4. Use Google Ads to expand your reach.

Google Ads are relatively inexpensive and can help you rank at the top of search results. Google Ads can help you expand your reach, connect to your target audience and build brand awareness. 

If you find counterfeit businesses outranking you, report them to Google and take the necessary steps to continue improving your search engine ranking and strengthening your online presence.

TipTip

An online reputation management service can help build consumer trust by monitoring your brand, keywords, search traffic and related activities.

5. Prevent content scraping by counterfeit competitors.

The last thing you want is a counterfeit competitor outranking you with your own content strategy by stealing your unique posts and information. You can prevent content scraping in a few ways:

  • Limit access to articles by requiring registration, membership or payment. 
  • Require visitors to utilize a CAPTCHA tool. 
  • Use an IT team or service to help you block common scrapers or regularly change the HTML.

Avoid losing business and money to fraudulent advertisers

Regardless of your business size, security should always be a top priority. Counterfeit sites and scammers can harm sales and impact your brand’s reputation. As scams become increasingly common in a digital world, it’s essential to take the right steps to protect your brand, website and customers while securing the top spot you deserve in search results.

Andrew Martins contributed to the reporting and writing in this article. 

Casey Conway headshot
Casey Conway, Business Operations Insider and Senior Writer
Casey Conway is an HR expert and communications consultant specializing in employee experience and internal company communications. Casey brings experience training leaders on how to develop and administer employee recognition programs designed to improve employee morale and engagement. She has also helped develop and lead company-wide wellness initiatives that provide employees with the resources to care for their physical and mental health. In addition to her experience as a business consultant, Casey has more than 15 years of experience as an HR technology writer. In that time, she has covered tools like HR software, as well as outsourcing options like Professional Employer Organizations (PEOs).
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