Jayne Gregory* was pregnant with her first baby and perusing the booths at a downtown Toronto baby show this past spring when she noticed a table selling a product called Happy Mats—silicone placemats that double as plates and suction to the table or high-chair tray so little hands can’t knock them off. Gregory had heard of the mats and they sounded great, so she bought one.
What she didn’t know is that she hadn’t actually purchased a real Happy Mat; it was a knock off. “I just assumed it was the same one—I had no idea it might be something different,” says Gregory. How could she have known? The booth, which featured a number of brightly coloured teething toys, bibs and stuffies, looked totally legitimate. The seller was pleasant, and Gregory was, after all, at a large, reputable, big-city trade show.
It wasn’t until a few weeks later that she discovered through a random Facebook post about counterfeit baby products that she hadn’t bought the real Happy Mat, which is manufactured by a Colorado-based company called Ezpz, and distributed in Canada by Toronto company Hip Mommies. “My biggest concern is health and safety,” says Gregory. “There’s going to be food touching this, and I would be putting it in the dishwasher. What if the material breaks down?”
Hip Mommies owner Jennifer Chua says she often hears from parents who, unbeknownst to them, have purchased fake Ezpz mats. “They come to us saying the product doesn’t work well, and they want a refund,” she says. “I ask them where they bought it, and then I have to tell them they’ve bought a fake.”
Unfortunately, this problem isn’t limited to Ezpz mats. Fake baby products are now everywhere—both online and at bricks-and-mortar stores. And some of them could put kids in real danger.
“The counterfeit problem in Canada is massive,” says Lorne Lipkus, an intellectual property lawyer in Toronto. He says the value of counterfeit goods sold in Canada annually is in the tens of billions, and while no one is certain how much of that is baby products, it’s clear that many major baby-gear brands are affected. Infant-carrier maker Ergo, baby gear company Skip Hop and stroller manufacturer Maclaren, for example, all have pages on their websites about fakes.
How does this happen?
Counterfeiters are masters at replicating. They’ll make fake product websites that look just like the real ones, or advertise a product on a site like eBay, Amazon or AliExpress using images stolen from the real company. An image of Chua’s daughter appears on the authentic Ezpz mat packaging, and she says the picture is now being used around the world to sell fake mats.
Chua says scammers have even begun running real Ezpz ads on Facebook, but when users click it, they’re taken to an illegitimate site, and Lipkus says criminals are increasingly using social media to peddle their wares. “We’re seeing more and more where social media sites like Facebook or Instagram are being used to house the counterfeit operations,” he says.
Because the counterfeit problem is so rampant on Chinese e-commerce sites like Alibaba and AliExpress, it’s super easy for pretty much anyone to order a bunch of knock-offs and sell them at baby shows, in pop-up retail locations, on buy-and-sell websites like Kjiji and Craigslist, and even in mom-to-mom Facebook groups.
The dangers of fakes
Wearing a fake Kate Spade bag that you got on Canal St. in New York is one thing. Wearing your baby in a knock-off baby carrier is another. When a shady company fakes a name-brand product, there aren’t any checks and balances to ensure the item won’t put your kid in danger. Nobody is checking what material it is made of, how strong the product is, and what chemicals were used, whereas products that are imported legally must be declared with the government and can be subject to inspection. They would have to comply with Health Canada’s consumer product safety regulations, which address things like flammability, phthalates and for certain children’s items, choking and strangling hazards.
It’s important to note as well that companies who are legitimately importing from China will visit factories and develop relationships with manufacturers to ensure processes are acceptable. Distributors may also do some due diligence; Chua’s Hip Mommies, for example, reviews third-party safety testing reports for its products before it decides to distribute them.
On top of that, when you buy fakes—whether it’s baby gear or that Kate Spade bag—you may well be supporting bad people doing very bad things. “The factories in China that are making more than 80 percent of the counterfeits are often controlled by organized crime,” explains Lipkus. “They might be providing terrorist financing, and they often use slave and youth labour.” He says he’s had clients go into factories where kids as young as six years old are mixing dangerous chemicals. That can’t be worth a few dollars off the list price.
How to avoid buying a counterfeit baby product
While Lipkus says that every major store you can name has had a problem with counterfeit products, there are nonetheless ways you can protect yourself.
-If you’re looking to buy a specific product, visit the manufacturer’s website to see who is legally allowed to sell it. You’ll often find this under “authorized retailers/distributors” or “where to buy.” Both brick and mortar stores and online shops are usually listed.
-If you’re buying online from Amazon, click on the “sold by” link. It should list either the manufacturer itself, or the name of a distributor, which you can check to ensure it is authorized (see point above).
-Be skeptical if you notice poor descriptions of the product online, such as grammatical errors or other eyebrow-raising verbiage. For example, a fake Ezpz mat on Amazon.ca says the product is good for use on baby walkers, an item that’s illegal in Canada.
-Stick to well-known, well-established online retailers, and/or ones that also have brick and mortar locations. If you find a smaller online retailer that you’d like to shop from, do a bit of digging. Do they have a Contact Us page, and do people respond to your emails? Are their social media accounts active? Beware of websites that offer time-limited deals, or ‘only five left’ at a bargain price.
-If you’re buying in person from a store, baby show or market, inspect the product carefully. Does it look and feel well-made? Take a close look at the packaging, as counterfeiters often use flimsy plastic and leave off key details. You may also see spelling and grammatical errors.
-Be careful when buying from buy-and-sell websites or off Facebook. If someone advertises that they have a limited number of an item at a great price, those could be knock-offs. Similarly, if someone in a neighbourhood group says they have 14 baby carriers available, it’s worth wondering why any one person would have so many carriers.
What to do if you discover your item is fake
Start with the retailer who sold you the item and request a refund. It’s possible they, too, have been duped, and may readily offer you a refund. If that doesn’t work, call your credit card company. Most protect against fraud, so if you’ve used your card to buy an item that turns out to be counterfeit, you may be able to get your money back. Lipkus also recommends informing the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre as well as the police (using the non-emergency line). It’s an extra step, but if nobody reports these things, it can never be stopped. Once the matter is resolved, destroy the item. If it’s not safe for your baby, it’s not safe for anybody else’s either.
*Name changed upon request