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Booming online trade in illicit cosmetics putting consumers and businesses at risk this festive season

Gaelle Walker
17 December 2020

The health of the UK’s legitimate beauty and cosmetics industries is being increasingly undermined by a growing illicit online trade in cheap unregulated goods and counterfeit products. 

The worrying development, which is diverting trade away from legitimate businesses and putting consumers at risk, is being exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic which continues to push shoppers towards new e-sources of supply, the Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI) told

“The UK cosmetics industry is facing all the same issues as other sectors such as electronics, tobacco and alcohol when it comes to illicit products, including counterfeits, low-priced ‘knock offs’ and cheap foreign imports which have not gone through the relevant UK safety checks or adhere to UK regulatory standards,” Mark Gardiner, lead officer for product safety at the CTSI said.

“From a product safety perspective, it is a concern as these unregulated products can and do contain a wide variety of dangerous ingredients and contaminants that could be hugely damaging to human health.

“An eye-liner containing biological contaminants for example could lead to a serious eye infection, or in the worst-case scenario, blindness.

"Some products have also been found to have high levels of lead or other heavy metals and unnamed allergens. When it comes to illicit cosmetics there really are multiple routes to harm.”

“The current situation with the Covid-19 pandemic has seen shoppers turn to the internet for their supply like never before and especially now in the run-up to Christmas when more people are looking for gifts and treats.

"Unfortunately, criminals and underhand sellers are out to exploit that.  

“As with any industry, as demand grows, so does the number of people looking to take advantage.”

“Aside from the safety concerns, illicit products clearly also pose a serious risk to legitimate businesses as a result of unfair competition,” Gardiner added.

The warning follows a crackdown on illicit websites by Europol last month which resulted in the seizure of over 21,910 domain names offering counterfeit products, most significantly fake cosmetics, over the internet.

More than €2.5m worth of products, including 22,614 cosmetic products, were also seized during the operation, which was carried out in partnership law enforcement authorities from 27 countries, including the UK, Ireland, France, Spain, Hong Kong and the US.

Illicit cosmetics accounted for the largest number of seizures, followed by mobile phone accessories, perfume bottles and fake condoms.

Europol, which has recently launched a ‘Don’t F***(ake) Up campaign to help protect consumers from buying illicit products said: “The internet has become an essential channel for e-commerce. Its instant global reach and anonymity make it possible to sell nearly anything to anyone at any time.

“Counterfeiters know it and are increasingly exploiting the unlimited opportunities offered by the World Wide Web. Fake products such as clothing, cosmetics, pharmaceutical products, can be easily found online at a cheaper price than the original ones.

“The quality of counterfeit products seems to be improving, the products now looking like exact copies of the original brand. There are a growing number of online B2B exchanges and e-commerce sites offering these products, many advertised via social media and search engines. Counterfeiters have become smarter at promoting these fakes and use advanced marketing techniques such as paid search ads, search engine optimisation, unsolicited emails or the use of branded terms in domain names.

Some illicit websites selling counterfeits are so sophisticated that it is hard to detect that they are scams. Infringers are also exploiting mobile app stores as an ideal shop front. Again, users are less likely to question the legitimacy of an app, especially if it appears in an official app store.”

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