When a bargain-hunting Vancouver teacher found glue guns on sale for only a dollar apiece, she was delighted. But her delight quickly turned to horror when one of the glue guns caught fire, severely injuring one of her young students.
It’s a tragedy that never should have happened. After all, the glue guns bore the certification mark of Underwriters Laboratories Inc. (UL). These types of marks are the cornerstone of product safety, providing consumers with assurance that the products bearing the marks have been properly tested. In this case, however, the mark was a fake. The components and workmanship were substandard and dangerous. UL Director Brian Monks recalls this as one of the saddest cases involving counterfeit certification marks that he has seen in the course of his career.
Monks’ concern is echoed across Canada’s standardization community, by all product certification bodies and members of Canada’s National Standards System (NSS). "Each new case of counterfeiting that appears seriously jeopardizes the integrity of our national system" commented Dennis Durrant, Chair of the Standards Council of Canada (SCC)’s Advisory Committee on Conformity Assessment. "In order to serve their intended purpose, the public must be able to trust certification marks."
Thankfully, the glue gun story ended with some resolution. Called in to investigate the case, Monks visited the importer, and an incoming shipment of the deadly glue guns was seized by customs officials. What the incident highlights is the seriousness of problems posed by counterfeit products, and the need for greater collaborative effort among all affected parties.
"In order to serve their intended purpose, the public must be able to trust certification marks."
All would agree that more could have been done to prevent the glue gun tragedy from happening. Obviously the manufacturer who knowingly made shoddy, unsafe products and applied the phony mark is ultimately to blame. However, there were many points at which the fake certification mark might have been revealed and the product taken off the market, whether during an inspection in the product’s country of origin, upon its arrival in Canada, or by a consumer who questioned a ‘too good to be true’ price tag.
"Counterfeit products place public safety at risk and Canadians need to get the message that faulty counterfeit items can kill," says RJ Falconi, Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary of CSA Group. He stresses that fake marks can show up on all types of products from circuit breakers and extension cords to safety boots and light bulbs.
Falconi says counterfeiting is a massive problem that cannot be ignored. "It is estimated that it accounts for more than six per cent of world trade, or $450 billion per year. For individuals, counterfeit products are a serious safety threat. For industry, they 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."
"The time to act is now," says Doug Geralde, Director of Corporate Audits & Investigations at CSA Group, who also serves as co-chair of the International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition (IACC) and is a member of the Canadian Anti- Counterfeiting Network. "Counterfeiting is endemic in countries whose standards are not as strong as those in Canada, EU and the U.S.," says Geralde. He suggests that Canada risks becoming a haven for this type of counterfeit activity if it does not take steps to address the problem.
Education and cooperation
As the overseer of the NSS and the organization that accredits product certification bodies in Canada, SCC is very concerned about the impact that the use of counterfeit certification marks is having.
"As Canada’s national accreditation body, we have a responsibility to protect the integrity of the product certification system in Canada and to ensure that Canadians can continue to have confidence in the certified products they use," says Pat Paladino, SCC’s Director of Conformity Assessment. "When the public hears stories about products with a fake mark that have caused injury or worse, they begin to lose faith in the System. It is vital that we work together with our partners to put the problem into context and make everyone aware of what they can do to address it."
In Canada, alliances are being formed between various different groups, including product certification bodies, industry associations, law enforcement agencies, inspection authorities and legal experts. Among these partners, the shared objective is to strengthen their ability to identify counterfeit marks, track down the individuals responsible for putting them there, and prosecute them.
"Increasing awareness of counterfeiting is a key goal of CSA’s Anti-Counterfeiting program," says Manny Gratz, CSA's Manager, Anti-Counterfeiting and Intellectual Property Enforcement. In addition to the conference, CSA has undertaken several other proactive initiatives including training programs to help retailers understand product approval marks and detect counterfeit marks, enhanced market surveillance of various commercial outlets, and cooperation with regulatory and legal authorities on investigations.
Underwriters Laboratories of Canada (ULC) is likewise taking an awareness-based approach to the issue says G. Rae Dulmage, Director of ULC's Standards Department and Government Relations Office. In addition to providing courses on detecting counterfeit marks, in 2003 the company published a Canadian Reference Guide to UL & ULC Markings and Labels for inspection authorities.
"The Guide Book solved two problems," says Dulmage. "It showed regulators what constitutes a mark and covered key items to look for. It also changed regulator perceptions, and gave them a logical way to determine whether a mark is in fact legitimate."
"When the public hears stories about products with a fake mark that have caused injury or worse, they begin to lose faith in the System. It is vital that we work together with our partners to put the problem into context and make everyone aware of what they can do to address it."
Another way that product certification bodies are keeping the public and regulators informed about incidents of counterfeiting is through their web sites. As a condition of their accreditation, certification bodies are required to take steps to protect their marks. By publishing information about any product bearing a forged or improper application of their certification mark, and communicating with the manufacturer of that product, product certifiers are an important catalyst for positive change.
In the battle to stop counterfeit certification marks, encouraging domestic cooperation is just the start. Canada must also look to countries whose standards and conformity assessment systems are less rigorous for their support.
"The success of various national standards systems under globalization has to an extent led to the growth in the current level of counterfeiting," says Dulmage. He believes that the global acceptance of marks is a double-edged sword. Applying a fake certification mark to a product may be tempting to some, especially if it is likely to go undetected by authorities in that country. On the flipside, countries that lack the resources to put a strong standards system in place are more likely to be the recipients of shipments of potentially dangerous counterfeit products.
Dulmage, who is a member of the SCC’s advisory committee to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO)’s policy committee on developing countries (DEVCO), adds that this is a key issue for emerging economies. While it is one of many issues being tackled by DEVCO, it is an integral part of larger efforts to provide emerging economies with the technical and financial assistance, as well as the experience they require to institute strong national standards systems.
"As these countries enter into international markets, they need to conform to the agreed conventions of standardization," adds Dulmage. "A strong standards system in a country can be a key influencer in preventing counterfeiting or the importation of counterfeit products into their country. This is due to the fact that the country has effectively adopted a standardization process that is sustainable and accepted—in other words it facilitates market access".
What’s old is not new again
Perhaps one of the most disturbing trends in counterfeit products is the passing off of old items as new, using the original certification mark as a means to market the products as being safe. Honest organizations may even be unwittingly contributing to these activities in the belief that they are being both economical and environmentally conscious. Consider, for example, a hospital that is replacing an obsolete circuit breaker that originally cost $18,000. The hospital staff would like to recoup some of its investment and at the same time is faced with an environmental push to recycle knowing that many dumps won’t accept old electrical equipment. Not surprising that the hospital might sell this equipment to a refurbisher, rather than destroy or otherwise dispose of it.
"A strong standards system in a country can be a key influencer in preventing counterfeiting or the importation of counterfeit products into their country."
Unfortunately, in the hands of unprincipled people, these products may be "repaired" using faulty or incompatible components, packaged to look new and, sold at discount prices. This type of activity is especially prevalent with certain electrical devices, including molded case circuit breakers, which are commonly used in public buildings like schools and hospitals.
In response to a sudden increase in the number of hazardous circuit breakers on the market, in March 2005, Ed Tymofichuk, President of the SCC-sponsored Canadian National Committee on the International Electrotechnical Committee (CNC/IEC), wrote to Health Canada’s Consumer Safety Branch, urging the department to prohibit the sale of used and or salvaged molded case circuit breakers. In July 2005, the CNC/IEC further emphasized the dangers of these items to SCC’s Provincial Territorial Advisory Committee, which includes among its members representatives from various regulatory bodies.
Canada is not alone in recognizing the challenges of "used" products to the product certification system. It has joined a number of its global counterparts, including many from developing countries, in support of the development of standards that address the testing of used equipment.
When it all comes together?
Earlier this year the RCMP seized thousands of power bars and extension cords bearing forged UL certification marks.
When tested, the counterfeit extension cords melted and caught fire within minutes. The power bars were found to have undersized wiring, no surge suppression, reverse polarity wiring (a shock hazard), and a plastic casing that was not made of fire-resistant material.
While enforcement breakthroughs like this one may only scratch the surface, they do send a powerful message to counterfeiters. Canadians will not tolerate this serious affront to their quality of life. Through its partners, the NSS is dedicated to protecting consumers from these threats using a combination of education, training, surveillance and prosecution of those found guilty. Now that’s a mark of commitment that all Canadians can have confidence in.
Suspect a fake: When in doubt, consumers are encouraged to check with the product certification body whose mark appears on the product; their websites enable consumers to verify that the marks areaccurately used.
Certification bodies are taking a zero tolerance policy with respect to anyone found illegally using their certification marks. And with the help of regulators and prosecutors, have already achieved some success. One such example of collaboration is the day-long conference jointly hosted by the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) and the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters (CME). Held in Mississauga, in April 2005, the event, called "Caveat Emptor: Let the Buyer Beware", brought together representatives from various industries and organizations in Canada to share information and strategies for tackling the problem.
This article first appeared in volume 32 of CONSENSUS Magazine, 2005. The information it contains was accurate at the time of publication but has not been updated or revised since, and may not reflect the latest updates on the topic. If you have specific questions or concerns about the content, please contact the Standards Council of Canada.