The bureau of Customs and Border Protection currently seizes approximately $1 million per month in counterfeit electrical merchandise, up from $4.5 million worth of counterfeit electrical products seized in total from 1997 through 2002. Those products not seized often end up in the market.

“Counterfeiting is growing,” said Clark Silcox, general counsel for NEMA. “In fact, last November and December, shipments of products such as extension cords and power strips totaling $8 million were seized.”

Many manufacturing companies are combating counterfeiting via the National Electrical Manufacturers Associations' (NEMA) anti-counterfeiting program. Established in 2003, the program helps NEMA members understand how to protect their intellectual property rights, informs the public about counterfeit electrical products, exchanges information with other organizations concerned about counterfeiting, and works with law enforcement officials to address this problem.

The damage of counterfeiting goes beyond economic loss to the original equipment manufacturers. Counterfeit products jeopardize the performance of electrical systems and place personnel in danger of electrical accidents.

“The continued growth of counterfeit electrical products is a real concern for us,” said Randy Carson, senior vice president and group executive of Eaton Corp.'s electrical business. “When counterfeit products enter the market, property and lives are put at risk.”

One product particularly susceptible to counterfeiters because of its small size and ubiquity is the low-voltage circuit breaker. It's the most common type of overcurrent protection, ensuring the safe flow of electricity in residential, commercial and industrial applications.

“Counterfeit circuit breakers have been found that are nothing more than a good-looking switch providing no electrical protection whatsoever,” said Silcox.

In addition to jeopardizing Code compliance and safety, use of unauthorized products can invalidate existing warranties. For example, counterfeit breakers installed in switchgear can void the switchgear warranty. Warranty issues often result in unnecessary repair and replacement costs for the end user.

The first line of defense against counterfeiting is engineers and operators. They are encouraged to know their original equipment and ensure they replace the equipment with new, approved products.

The next steps for NEMA's anti-counterfeiting committee include developing training programs for members and examining potential enforcement initiatives.