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 to identify counterfeit electrical products and work with government agencies to stop counterfeit electrical products from entering the United States.

The forum featured representatives from the International AntiCounter-feiting Coalition Inc., Washington, D.C.; the U.S. Customs Service; and Underwriters Laboratories (UL), Melville, N.Y. About 25 manufacturers from a broad range of product areas attended.

According to reports at the forum by Independent Electrical Contractors, Alexandria, Va., there are four types of electrical product counterfeiting:

  • exact copies of product including trademark and safety marks;

  • copied packaging or similar packaging to confuse consumers;

  • copied safety labels, such as UL, 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.”

A NEMA member attending the forum said one of his salespeople saw a noticeable dip in sales one quarter, saying, “I can't understand. We don't seem to be losing sales to our competition.” After some digging, they discovered counterfeit products were taking the sales away.

According to Brian Monks, the UL's Customs liaison official, the United States is seizing millions of dollars a year in counterfeit products. Monks said the problem is most common among electrical products such as nightlights, surge strips, extension cords and power strips.

NEMA hopes to tap into the efforts of UL, which has had a zero-tolerance policy toward counterfeit copies of UL's registered certification mark in place since 1995.

Still, more than 4 million pieces of merchandise bearing counterfeit UL marks have been seized and destroyed since the launch of a government program to discourage counterfeiting in 1997, according to an article on the Web site of the U.S. Customs Department. The seized merchandise has included lamps, extension cords, nightlights, Christmas lights, power strips, fans, telephones, radios, power supplies and computer components.

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 article also said that 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 the forum after members voiced concerns about a recent increase in counterfeiting. Manufacturers from 12 of NEMA's 51 product sections said they have 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 being considered is the creation of 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 being discussed are the development of a joint-industry task force to confront the issue and the development of a database of known counterfeiters.

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