Last week, I joined agents with U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Customs and Border Protection as they intercepted a plane that had just touched down in New Orleans. The plane was carrying boxes of dangerous counterfeit products including electronics, shoes, apparel, cosmetics and toys headed for store shelves and, ultimately, under holiday trees. Thankfully, in this case, the Grinch got caught.

Counterfeit goods are a problem all year long, but demand for gifts means the holiday season is an especially busy time for crooks. During last week’s operation, agents seized counterfeit versions of the year’s must-have toys which could have easily been sold to unsuspecting parents. These products posed an especially serious threat to children since counterfeit toys have been found to contain lead and pose undisclosed choking hazards. Even gifts for adults can be risky. In recent years, we have seen fake car parts fail, inferior phone chargers catch fire, and counterfeit cosmetics cause allergic reactions.

On the front lines of the fight to combat dangerous fake products are the law enforcement officials who scan imports every day for products that violate our standards. On a typical day last year, CBP seized $3.8 million worth of products that violated intellectual property law, using brands or images that impersonated another product.

Even if consumers think they are getting a good deal online, many times the true cost of these items is much higher than the list price. Counterfeit goods are known to benefit organized crime which only compounds the damage of these products, making them harmful at home and abroad.

With all of these threats lurking, there are steps you can take to protect yourself and your family. First, take a hard look at the website you are using to buy your items. Is the website secure? Are they charging you sales tax, if applicable? Those are signs that you are working with reputable retailers. Second, inspect the packaging when the product arrives. Misspellings, unusual packaging, and expired products are clues that your product may not be authentic. Third, expect assurances that products from resellers are genuine. Sellers in the secondary market should have procedures to inspect and authenticate the products they sell.

Counterfeiters are getting more sophisticated, but fortunately, consumers are also becoming savvier. With a little caution, we can make sure that this holiday season is healthy and happy.

KASIE BRILL

director, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Global Brand Council

Washington, D.C.