NEMA Forum Focuses on Overseas Counterfeiting of Electrical Products

April 12, 2002
With increasing overseas shipments of counterfeit cord sets, power-supply cords, telecommunications wire and cable, outlet boxes, switches and ground-fault

With increasing overseas shipments of counterfeit cord sets, power-supply cords, telecommunications wire and cable, outlet boxes, switches and ground-fault circuit interrupters, the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), Rosslyn, Va., and other electrical trade groups are moving to stop the flow of these unsafe goods.

NEMA recently sponsored an anti-counterfeiting forum to discuss the growing number of counterfeit electrical products entering U.S. markets from China, Russia, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Deceptive labels and copied packaging and trademarks make such products difficult to distinguish from the real thing. At the forum NEMA members discussed methods that they can use to identify counterfeit electrical products and work with government agencies to stop counterfeit electrical products from entering the United States.

According to a report on the NEMA forum by the Independent Electrical Contractors trade association, Alexandria, Va., the four types of product counterfeiting outlined in the NEMA meeting were exact copies of product including trademark and safety marks; copied packaging or similar packaging to confuse consumers; copied safety labels, such as Underwriters Laboratories (U/L), Melville, N.Y., Canadian Standards Association (CSA), Toronto, and others for use on products; and copied trademarks that are subsequently placed on electrical products.

Clark Silcox, NEMA counsel, told forum attendees that for NEMA to help manufacturers win the battle against counterfeiters, they must register their trademarks with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Washington, D.C. “That's a stage-one effort,” he said. “U.S. Customs officials also need to be trained on how to identify counterfeit electrical products.

“This can only come from manufacturers,” he said. “When they make counterfeit marks, some people do a good job and it is not immediately visible.”

One NEMA member attending the forum said one of his salespeople once saw a noticeable dip in sales one quarter and told his boss about it, saying, “‘I can't understand. We don't seem to be losing sales to our competition.’

His boss said, ‘You better look into this and find out what the issue is here.’ After some digging, they found out counterfeit products were taking the sales away. Sometimes it can be very subtle and you just don't know what's going on.”

The NEMA forum featured representatives from the U.S. Customs Service; UL, which has a “zero-tolerance” policy toward counterfeit copies of UL's registered certification mark; and the International AntiCounterfeiting Coalition Inc., Washington, D.C. About 25 manufacturers attended from a broad range of product areas.

The United States is seizing millions of dollars a year in counterfeit products, according to Brian Monks, Underwriters Laboratories' Customs liason official. Monks said he problem is most common among electrical products such as nightlights, surge strips, extension cords and power strips.

NEMA is also hoping to tap into the efforts of Underwriters Laboratories (UL), which has had a zero-tolerance policy toward counterfeit copies of UL's registered certification mark, in place since 1995.

Silcox said that imports of counterfeit NEMA products is not a huge problem, but now is the time to “nip it in the bud” before the problem escalates.

According to an article on the U.S. Customs Department Web site, since a government program to discourage counterfeiting of electrical products was launched in 1997, more than 4 million pieces of merchandise bearing counterfeit UL marks have been seized and destroyed. To put the problem in perspective, imagine the seized merchandise packed tightly into 40-foot ocean containers placed end to end; the line of containers would be more than three miles long, according to the article. The seized merchandise included lamps, extension cords, nightlights, Christmas lights, power strips, fans, telephones, radios, power supplies and computer components.

According to the article on the U.S. Customs Department Web site, the worst example of counterfeiters' disregard for public safety involved the seizure of ground-fault circuit interrupters that had no protective circuitry. Had they been installed in bathrooms, outdoors or in other required location, results could have been fatal.

NEMA decided to host a forum after members voiced their concerns about seeing a recent increase in counterfeiting. Manufacturers from 12 of NEMA's 51 product sections said they had seen an increase in counterfeit electrical products in the past five to six months. A NEMA representative said its dry battery section was one area that has seen serious counterfeiting.

Monks said manufacturers need to be very aware that they are making something that counterfeiters can knock off.

“They (manufacturers) have to find some security features, some way to identify counterfeiting and to work with law enforcement to stop people from eating their lunch, so to speak,” said Monks.

One solution under consideration is to create a focus within NEMA to address the counterfeiting issue so that the association will have the contacts and capabilities that its members need when confronted with this situation. According to IEC, other solutions under discussion are the development of a joint-industry taskforce to confront the issue and the development of a database of known counterfeiters.