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How to avoid counterfeit items for sale on social media

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Posted at 12:49 PM, Dec 14, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-14 13:10:14-05

New research shows many unsuspecting shoppers may be nabbing a knock-off.

The Federal government warns that if consumers think they're just buying on the cheap, they may be funding other crimes, even terrorism.

Merrill Hardy West is a self-proclaimed Instagram addict. The former Radio City Music Hall Rockette and Broadway dancer, is a fashionista, so shopping and scrolling at the same time is a win-win.

"Blanket scarves are in right now and I've bought several of them and also a couple of different purses," West said.

She's had great experiences, but that's not always the case. In fact, Instagram is a hot new hangout for counterfeiters. A recent study looked at 150,000 posts using the five most popular fashion hashtags like Louis Vuitton and Chanel and found nearly 20 percent featured counterfeit items.

The findings are no surprise to Bruce Foucart, Assistant Director of Homeland Security Investigations.

"Unfortunately, counterfeits have proliferated via social media as well as the third party marketplaces. And it's something that we're very, very aware of," Foucart said.

Foucart explained it's like playing whack-a-mole. When you shut down a bogus account, more spring up. In fact, the study found Instagram counterfeit kings are using sophisticated bots to run multiple accounts at once.

It's not just a risk of buying a cheap fake, however.

"We've seen criminal organizations that are selling counterfeit goods that are invested in gun running, forced child labor. Counterfeiting can go to finance and fund terrorist activity," Foucart said.

Instagram says it responds to reports of counterfeit content sometimes within hours and proactively fights back with, "sophisticated spam detection and blocking systems."

The study found the counterfeiters are constantly fighting to stay ahead of detection, doing things like embedding information in images and often using instant message apps for contact.

Other red flags:
-If you can't verify a phone number, skip the sale
-If a price looks too good to be true, it probably is
-Be leery of stock photos unless you're buying from a retailer

Some key words used in counterfeit posts: "original", "replica" and "cheap". It's important to note some legitimate posts may also use the terms, and the majority of sellers on Instagram are on the up and up.

Also, in addition to luxury items, federal investigators always want to warn consumers to be especially careful when buying items that could pose health or safety concerns such as skincare, pharmaceuticals, electronics or car parts. It's important to note, this is not just for Instagram.  Experts stress the warnings hold true for shopping on many other social media platforms.

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