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Confronting the counterfeiters

Alan Birks, president of BEAMA Installation, and commercial & marketing manager of Eaton, highlights the growing problem of counterfeit electrical goods.

Confronting the counterfeiters

In times of recession, everybody is looking for ways to economise, including electrical contractors and their suppliers. However, there are always unscrupulous individuals ready to exploit the situation. Recently, the trade in counterfeit electrical goods has taken a new turn, with unscrupulous UK-based companies aggressively marketing fake wiring accessories, circuit protection and other products.

Electrical wholesalers have a vital role to play in combating this trade. The message is ‘Don’t risk selling or installing counterfeit and non-compliant electrical installation products – you are risking prosecution and you could be endangering lives.’

This is not just scaremongering – fuses with no sand filling or fuse elements, miniature circuit-breakers with no thermal-magnetic element or arc chute, and mouldings in materials that may not withstand the stress of short-circuit currents, have all been found in the marketplace. These devices are intended to protect the public but if they are exposed to a short-circuit current they could explode, causing injury, fire or even death.

In recent months, some wholesalers and retailers have received emails and faxes advertising wiring accessories, switchgear, circuit-protection products, cables, lighting equipment, batteries and chargers at a fraction of their normal price.

As a result, legal action has been taken against a number of traders after Trading Standards Officers, supported by manufacturers’ representatives, entered their premises to inspect the stock for counterfeit and non-compliant products.

British electrical manufacturers have also been leading the world in combating the trade at source, through the BEAMA Anti-Counterfeiting Working Group. China is the principal source of counterfeit electrical goods and BEAMA is working with Chinese authorities to stamp out the trade. More than 200 Chinese factories have been raided – 10 million products have been seized with their packaging and tooling.

Currently up to 7% of world trade is thought to be in counterfeit goods. In some countries up to 75% of the electrical components on the market are counterfeit. The situation in the UK is nothing like as serious as this, but it does give cause for concern.

Be wary of underhand practices
The counterfeiting business is sophisticated and operates at different levels. At the basic level the counterfeiters copy the goods of reputable manufacturers and pass them off as those of the original manufacturer. In other cases products are offered as a ‘cheaper alternative’, interchangeable with the original manufacturer’s products. Another practice is to show the customer the genuine product but then supply counterfeit goods, or even mix genuine and counterfeit goods in the same package.

Yet another practice is to pass the goods down a distribution chain and then rebrand them. Products are manufactured in one country under the counterfeiter’s own name and then exported to a free trade area in another country where they are relabelled and documentation is changed so that they can be sold on as the products of reputable manufacturers.

There are no guarantees with counterfeit products. They are unlikely to have been tested to the appropriate standards and any CE marking is fraudulent.

Non-compliance is a related problem. This includes the sale of products from reputable manufacturers which are designed for export markets. They are then sold back into the UK. Although these will be quality products, if they are intended for export outside the European Union they will not be ‘CE’ marked, so their sale in the UK is illegal. Furthermore, they may be designed for different standards and operating conditions, for example they may be calibrated for a higher ambient temperature than UK products.

Prosecution under the Health and Safety at Work Act or the Electricity at Work Regulations could lead to an unlimited fine and a maximum of two years’ imprisonment if the offender is indicted in the High Court. A Civil Action could also be brought by an injured party for the tort of negligence, or under the Consumer Protection Act. Under these circumstances damages could be claimed, with no limit on the amount.

Where death due to gross negligence is involved, a prosecution for manslaughter is possible. An individual, if found guilty, could face imprisonment with a maximum term of life. For corporate manslaughter, an unlimited fine can be levied on the company, with a guide of 5-10% of annual turnover.

Industry action
UK manufacturers are working together through the BEAMA Anti-Counterfeiting working group and collaborating with other organisations such as the Electrical Safety Council, Test Authorities, Trading Standards, Electrical Contractors Association (ECA) and Electrical Distributors Association (EDA). Their aim is to ensure that the relevant laws are enforced and that awareness is raised within the industry and amongst the public.

BEAMA’s website and Counterfeit Kills DVD have been developed to draw attention to the dangers inherent with fake electrical goods. The website includes a ‘Blow the whistle’ facility so that users can report suspect goods. Meanwhile, the Electrical Installation Industry Charter is an agreement by trade bodies, representing manufacturers, installers and distributors where they commit themselves to fight against the trade in counterfeit and non-compliant electrical installation products.

The most recent development is a striking Counterfeit Kills poster which encourages electrical contractors to buy only from reputable wholesalers.

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