Spot The Difference

eye bright

One of these products is a fake. Think you know which one? Debra Brock on beating the online beauty fraudsters.

As a child I used to sit on the sofa on Boxing Day, polishing off the last of the mint Matchmakers, and watch, fascinated, as the news showed images of people camping out on Oxford Street to snag a cheap continental quilt or discounted set of steak knives the next morning. Fast forward to Boxing Day 30 years later and – there I am, installed on the sofa, polishing off the Matchmakers and surfing the online sales. And of course if there are no sales on, there are corners of the digital realm which are forever Boxing Day. Like most beauty fiends I have hovered over the bid button on eBay, tracking the heavily discounted bottles of perfume and temptingly priced palettes.


Beauty fakery is big business in 2013. The internet means that fraudsters have world wide reach. They can be selling from anywhere in the world, with multiple online identities, and getting their online “shops” up and running in a few clicks. When fakers get negative feedback, they can restart again within minutes. Printing technology has moved on so quickly that it’s easy for them to knock out really great packaging. With 3D printers on the way too, fakes will be almost impossible to spot with the naked eye.



So how on earth do you sort the wheat from the chaff? The true bargain that was someone else’s mistaken purchase from a mascara containing God knows what?


Clearly there are plenty of sensible steps you can take to protect yourself from being stung (literally, in some cases). Have a very long, hard look at the seller. Anyone selling multiple, identical items (top notch make-up brush sets are a good example) is unlikely to be flogging the genuine article. It’s worth checking out where the seller is based, too, as someone based in the Far East selling multiple high end products in the UK warrants careful inspection. Read the seller’s feedback really carefully, checking the variety of products they’ve sold and how they’ve been rated.  Factor in, too, what type of item you’re buying.  Fraudsters will typically target high selling, high value items as the most profitable items to fake, so a niche perfume purchase (Miller Harris, for example) has perhaps less risk attached than the latest must have from a big brand. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by convincing photos – fakers often shoot the real thing for a listing, then send the crud to the customer. Finally, don’t be frightened to ask questions of the seller, and, crucially, make sure you pay by PayPal so that you’re protected in the event of something going wrong.


As you’d imagine, eBay work hard to try and eliminate fakes from their site.  Suspicious looking posts are routinely taken down when spotted, and the advice from their safety centre is that they will intervene if you cannot resolve the problem with the seller, and then see if your claim qualifies for coverage through their Buyer Protection scheme. Remember, this scheme only applies if you have paid by PayPal. eBay also offer an easy way to report anything that you think is fake – you can simply message Customer Services with the item number.


But if you’ve done your research, ordered your item and ripped into the jiffy bag, would you know straight away if you’d bought a fake? I thought I would. I’d imagined flimsy packaging, or sub standard printing would tip me off immediately.  Then I spoke to Benefit Cosmetics.


They showed me some of the fake products they’ve come across in their fraud prevention work. I was stunned. The fake packaging was so convincing that it was indistinguishable from the real ones, even to Benefit staff.  If the pros can’t tell, we civilians have no chance – the fakes they showed me are so good they even scan through the Benefit tills.



The problem is, of course, that if the packaging is a dead ringer you’re not going to know the product is a fake until it’s on your face, and only then if you’re familiar with the real thing. And clearly, a fraudster knocking out fakes in a backstreet somewhere is likely to have a  devil-may-care attitude towards safety standards. “An example of a dangerous product being used in fake cosmetics is mercury, which was found in a fake Benefit Bad Gal mascara purchased from an unofficial source,” says Lisa Potter-Dixon, Head Make-up & Trend Artist at Benefit Cosmetics. “This can cause blindness, so is extremely dangerous’.


Potter-Dixon says there’s only so much a brand can do. “Although we’re not liable or responsible for the fake product, we still need to take the time to take care of the unfortunate customer who has come to us after a negative experience. Our reputation can be harmed as the fake products have our name, branding and logo on them.  We are losing business to con artists, so we want to do all that we can to educate consumers on buying our products from our official channels.”


Benefit, in common with the other major brands, use investigators and work with the authorities to track down those peddling fakes, and there are examples of successful prosecutions. But it’s a constant battle and in such a vast and multinational market, they clearly can’t be everywhere all the time.


For us as consumers, the message from the brands is clear – buy from an authorised bricks and mortar stockist or an official online source. And if you choose to ignore their advice? Well, there’s plenty you can do to try and mitigate the risk. Just don’t bank on being able to spot a fake before you put it on your face.











Debra Brock

Debra Brock is co-founder of and a contributing writer.

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