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How to avoid counterfeit items so good they might be on store shelves

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Kristin Thorne reports some counterfeit goods are such good fakes that they end up on legitimate retail shelves. (WABC)

The counterfeit industry is a global economy unto its own, generating an estimated $1.7 trillion a year. That money, experts warn, supports organized crime, child labor and terrorism.

And it's one thing when you know you're buying a fake. But what if you don't? Some counterfeit goods are such good fakes that they end up on legitimate retail shelves.

Every day, Customs agents stop millions of dollars worth of counterfeit goods from entering the U.S. But they can't catch everything.

"Very often, you might be buying a counterfeit in a branded store because it has slipped through the cracks," said Valeie Salembier, head of The Authentics Foundation.

Our sister station KGO in San Francisco put it to the test. They bought a fake NorthFace jacket for $30 on the Chinese website Aliexpress. Then, they took it to a NorthFace store without a receipt and attempted to return it.

They couldn't get past one salesperson.

"Honestly this doesn't even look like a real one," the clerk said. "This looks like a fake one to me."

But at another store, the jacket might well have wound up back on the shelves.

"What we could do is we can exchange it for a different item, but it's going to be the lowest selling value because the tags don't look like this," the salesperson said.

Of course, accepting the money would have been illegal, so the producer stopped right there.

"As a consumer, you need to know what you're buying," Salembier said.

Salembier's group is dedicated to raising awareness about the counterfeit industry, and she says you can avoid being a victim by simply doing your research.

"Go into a department store and take a look at the product," she said. "So you know what you're buying is the real thing."

There also a local company, Divatex, that's taking this a step further.

"How do we get to really know what we're buying?" CEO David Greenstein said. "Not at the end when we have a problem but at the beginning."

Divatex manufactures and distributes textiles throughout North American and South America, and they've partnered with Applied DNA Sciences in Stony Brook to use plant DNA to mark their luxury cotton fibers.

"It's the first time we have traceability information that tells us from the birth of the product to the end of it's life exactly where it came from," Applied DNA Sciences' MeiLin Wan said. "Who made it, when it was made."

For online shoppers, there are some things you can do to avoid buying counterfeit items. For one, you should only shop on the retailer's site. If the price on another site seems too good to be true, that's because it most likely is.

To learn more about how to avoid buying counterfeit products visit FakesAreNeverInFashion.org.

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