Tablet shopping online? Watch out for fakes

A new report finds thousands of shady tablets in online marketplaces. Here's how to avoid them.

Given the growing ubiquity of tablets in the business world as well as among consumers, it's a pretty safe bet that there are numerous IT decision-makers shopping online for the mobile devices at any given time.

Brand protection company MarkMonitor has a warning for such online shoppers, however: Watch out. “Brandjackers” are increasingly targeting the tablet market with clones and suspected counterfeits, the firm reported on Tuesday, and those fakes are frequently offered up online alongside the real thing.

"Online brandjackers pay close attention to market trends, especially those involving well-known brands, and are quick to put those trends and brand names to their own use," said Frederick Felman, CMO of MarkMonitor.

Buyers need to “beware these 'brand impersonators' who are hidden in plain sight,” Felman added.

To conduct its study, MarkMonitor examined online tablet listings over the course of a single day during the third quarter of 2011. Twenty-three sites were included, representing both business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) marketplaces.

What it found in just that limited set in a single day were more than 23,000 listings for clones, suspected counterfeits, or gray market tablet computers, the company says. Among those listings, MarkMonitor identified 15 manufacturers of clone tablets and almost 8,000 individual sellers, including 766 selling bulk quantities of suspected counterfeit tablets.

MarkMonitor also used Alexa and domain registration data to identify cybersquatted sites and the traffic they generated, and it found no fewer than 6,600 such sites generating more than 75 million annual visits.

Vendors of these suspect devices use tricky tactics to lure buyers, MarkMonitor found.

Among the listings promoting clones, for example, almost 20 percent used branded terms so that shoppers searching for the genuine brand would find the clone tablets listed right next to the genuine items.

Suspected counterfeiters, meanwhile, were a little more slippery, the company reports, often avoiding branded terms so as to evade detection and legal action while still trying to create an association with the legitimate brand.

One common tactic, for instance, is to use use photos of branded goods in listings without mentioning the brand; in some instances, brand names in photos were even deliberately blurred, MarkMonitor reported. Another tactic was to use the term “OEM” in listings so as to suggest that the tablet was part of an unauthorized run by a legitimate manufacturer.

Another red flag suggesting an item might be counterfeit is the listed availability date for the product. A full 26 wholesale vendors of suspected counterfeit tablets in MarkMonitor's study, in fact, offered their products as much as a month ahead of the real product's availability. Pricing on those tablets, meanwhile, was typically about half that of the real thing.

Find a price that's higher than what the manufacturer has suggested? That could mean it's a gray market offering. Pricing on such goods are on average 15 percent higher than manufacturer's suggested retail prices, MarkMonitor says--in some cases, as much as 50 percent higher, particularly in regions of the world where the genuine product is not yet available.

So what's the best way to steer clear of these shady products? Earlier today I spoke with MarkMonitor spokeswoman Te Smith, and she offered a few key tips:

1. Be Suspicious of Deep Discounts.

Prices that seem too good to be true probably are, Smith told me. “Counterfeiters have been getting very smart about pricing lately and not discounting their wares as heavily as before, but deep discounts--especially on unknown e-commerce sites--are a tip-off that consumers should do a lot more checking before buying,” she explained. “We saw discounts of more than 60 percent for tablets on some online storefronts.”

2. Check Out the Site.

While some questionable sites may appear professional at first glance, brandjackers sometimes neglect details like an “About” page, an FAQ page and company contact information. Watch for misspellings, poor English and similar red flags, Smith suggested. Also look for warranty information, a privacy policy and details about how to handle returns: “Reputable sites spell that out for you up front,” she said.

3. Look for Signs of Trouble.

Finally, it's also a good idea to search scam warning sites for any mention of the vendor, Smith said. Do a combined search on the vendor's name and the word “scam,” for example, and see what comes up, she advised.

Bottom line? As in so much of the world, “caveat emptor” is a good rule to live by when it comes to buying tablets online. Fail to do so, and you may end up paying a heavy price--in more ways than one.

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