Safety testing company battling counterfeiters from abroad

Published 4:52 pm Friday, September 22, 2006

For 112 years, Underwriters Laboratories Inc. has made its mark on everything from fire doors to night lights, with the familiar “UL” seal of approval assuring consumers a product is safe.

The independent testing organization, a not-for-profit company, says it provides its services at cost to manufacturers worldwide that voluntarily pay about $700 million a year to have products inspected.

But companies in China and elsewhere are making it more difficult for UL to do its job because some of their goods are entering U.S. ports with fake UL certification marks.

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In July, the company advised consumers that it had not evaluated certain adapters, lighting fixtures and heavy-duty dryer and extension cords circulating in the United States and that all of the products bore counterfeit UL marks.

In August, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recalled about 600,000 Chinese-made extension cords that were considered a shock hazard because of undersized wire and substandard insulation. Those cords also bore counterfeit UL labels.

“Even if we have one counterfeit, we’re not happy with it,” said John Drengenberg, consumer affairs manager at UL’s headquarters in Northbrook, Ill., a Chicago suburb.

The UL mark appears on 19 billion consumer items a year, advising consumers that products have been deemed safe from electric shocks or other problems.

Drengenberg said the counterfeits are believed to account for less than 1 percent of the total number of the genuine marks issued by UL. But he said the problem has been “ramping up” in recent years.

Typically, the counterfeit items are sold by street vendors, flea markets and deep discount stores, the company says.

Since 1996, UL has had a partnership with U.S. Customs Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to fight the counterfeiting problem. UL’s anti-counterfeiting unit even gets directly involved in seizures and sting operations.

The company has trained about 2,000 customs and FBI agents over the years, helping to put a focus on apprehensions at 24 ports, according to Brian Monks, the company’s vice president of anti-counterfeiting operations.

The company also advises the Consumer Product Safety Commission about possible counterfeits so the agency can determine whether to issue a warning or recall.

“CPSC works closely with Underwriters Laboratories to ensure that their seal continues to serve as a trusted mark for consumers to look for in the marketplace,” agency spokesman Scott Wolfson said.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that counterfeiting and piracy crimes of all types — not just involving fake UL labels, but everything from DVDs to automobile parts — cost the nation’s economy up to $250 billion a year and 750,000 jobs.

The business group has pressed to make the development of intellectual property laws a priority in China, the source of nearly two-thirds of the confiscated counterfeit goods entering the United States.

Last month, a federal judge in Miami sentenced two defendants, who were in the U.S. illegally from China, to more than seven years in prison for conspiring to traffic in several tractor-trailers’ worth of goods bearing counterfeit trademarks of UL and other companies.

Drengenberg said the company still is trying to trace the origin of the extension cords involved in last month’s recall. He said experience shows it usually turns out to be a small factory in China that relocates and starts manufacturing something else before it can be found by UL.

Rep. Don Manzullo, chairman of the House Small Business Committee, has urged the Bush administration to step up the pressure on China.

“We should help them to develop a more effective criminal enforcement regime,” Manzullo, R-Ill., told the U.S.-China Economic Security and Review Commission this year. “It is key that the Chinese aggressively criminalize counterfeiting behavior.”

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