TEXT OF STORY
Tess Vigeland: OK, I’ll admit that I’ve thought about doing it.
You know, buying a fake luxury item, especially when I visit Manhattan and they’re just everywhere. Maybe pick up a Kate Spade bag that isn’t a Kate Spade but ooh, it looks so close!
I haven’t done it really. But if I did, I might’ve been propping up the underground economy in South Korea. Unlike, say, China, their fakes are known to be “good” enough to fool even some experts.
Marketplace’s Rico Gagliano was in South Korea recently. He took the opportunity to learn a little about how to spot a fake.
Rico Gagliano: Itaewon, in the city of Seoul, is the kind of tourist district you find in cities all over the world. Not much authentic Korean culture here. Plenty of Burger Kings and Starbucks, though. And plenty of shops selling faux luxury goods.
Gagliano: About what percentage of the stuff that we’re seeing out here is fake in some way?
George Geddes: : Oh, close to 99 percent, if not a hundred!
George Geddes is a consultant for the Korean government’s Intellectual Property Office. One gray spring morning he agreed to show off his expertise in fake-spotting. We started easy.
Gagliano: Where are we right now?
Geddes: Well, we’re in front of a sunglass and bag display. I’m trying to be a little inconspicuous, even though I’ve got a big microphone in my face right now. As we can see we have “Feedi” sunglasses.
Gagliano: Instead of “Fendi.”
Geddes: Yes. Those are obviously some of your more obvious fakes. Picking names and styles that are similar to, but not exact copies. That way they can get around some problems, but not all problems, legally.
A few stalls down, though, were more brazen examples.
Geddes: Here are some Burberrys that are obviously not Burberrys, but the label: “Burberry, London, 100% Cashmere.” Yeah, these are all inexpensive silk scarves…
Shopkeeper: Good morning.
The elderly lady shopkeeper appears, bidding us a good morning.
Geddes: Good morning.
Geddes: Cashmere, yeah.
“Cashmere” she says. Then she notices my microphone and points at it suspiciously.
Shopkeeper: [speaking Korean]
Geddes: Nothing, we’re fine, that’s OK.
I don’t know what she’s saying, but her body language screams “Get out of here.” So we do.
Gagliano: We just got chased from that place because they didn’t like the microphone, understandably. But, finishing up talking about the Burberry scarf we were looking at?
Geddes: OK, for me, some of things to be looking for, actually, would be the print itself. Was it just printed on with a dye or was it weaved in? If it’s dyed on — and one of ’em was really bad — the colors start to blend and mix together. One of the blues there was horrible.
We wander past some fake Coach bags. The bag tags say the brand is “Taka.” But after buying one, George says, the shopkeeper will probably switch out the “Taka” tag for a very real-looking “Coach” tag.
Gagliano: Now obviously, when you see them do that, you know that it’s fake. Why do you then buy it?
Geddes: It’s all pretty much a game. Now, instead of searching for the cheapest price you can look for the best-quality fake. It adds to the allure — I think that’s one of the bigger things. The other thing as well is that people want luxury at a lower cost in general.
But so far our treasure hunt has turned up the lower cost, but not the luxury. I want to see some fakes that aren’t pretty clearly fakes.
Geddes: A lot of the good stuff, you can’t exactly walk in with a microphone and start asking questions about it. So let’s put away equipment and see what we can find.
We head to an Itaewon department store. Several floors of clothes, jewelry, and electronics. Mostly brand names; mostly fakes. I buy three Rolexes. I know they’re counterfeit because my total cost was $150, as opposed to the $30,000 or so they’d normally go for. Another clue was that the saleswoman didn’t display her Rolexes; she had them stowed in the back of the store in a shoebox. Still, they looked luxurious enough to me.
Afterwards, at a cafe, George showed me otherwise.
Geddes: One of them, one of the things it misses: second hands for Rolexes usually sweep nice and fluidly. An obvious mechanical ticking is one of the easiest ways to spot a fake Rolex.
So. On to watch number two. It was my favorite, with gold-edged numbers on the face. When the saleswoman put it in the box, it looked perfect.
Geddes: Somewhere down the way, though, it either got dropped or jostled or something and the numbers that were glued into the inner surface of the dial all fell off. And they’re now jingling inside the watch housing here.
Gagliano: All right, so that’s one way of spotting a fake, is if all the numbers fall off.
Geddes: That would be a good way, yes.
But Rolex number three was just about flawless. The back had a holographic serial number sticker, just like the real thing. The word “Rolex” was printed in tiny letters around the inside of the bezel — that’s one of the company’s anti-counterfeiting measures, counterfeited. There was even, as with the real deal, a microscopic Rolex crown logo etched into the glass, barely visible to the naked eye. But there was one big giveaway:
Geddes: It has this interesting serial number. I typed that into Google. The first page was filled with hits for fake Rolexes.
Gagliano: So, on the web you can find…
Geddes: Yes. There are entire message groups and communities dedicated to collecting, as they call them, “Replica Watches.”
Gagliano: So, you see this third watch. Do you ever feel respect for a person who’s able to make almost perfect fake?
Geddes: No. People who produce things like these watches and a lot of these gangs doing this type of stuff, they don’t stop at watches. One of the more infamous cases I always have in my mind was a Chinese manufacturer who was selling fake antibiotics in Africa and the capsules were worthless. For these reasons, I don’t really have too much respect for these people.
In other words, George says, there’s no such thing as a “good” fake.
In Seoul, South Korea, I’m Rico Gagliano for Marketplace Money.