In the world of high-priced purses, beware quality fakes

August 2, 2011

Lan Tran, a systems analyst in Boston, wanted a Louis Vuitton purse which retails for about $1,500, but thought the price was a little too steep for her. So when she saw one listed on eBay for $300 from a top seller with only good feedback, she struck.

“With all those years shopping on eBay, I had my mind rest that it was truly a real deal,” Tran says.

Then she looked at some of the detailed photos and realized something about the stitching didn’t quite look right. She asked Cassandra Connors, whose company Bella Bag, is built around the idea making sure clients are getting the real deal, whether she could authenticate that the bag was, indeed, a real Louis Vuitton. Connors concluded it was a fake.

“I was extremely disappointed,” Tran says.

When it comes to designer handbags, as the price rises, so does the quality of the fakes. When a new bag sells for $300 or $400, there’s not enough profit margin in investing in building a quality phony product. But when you get into the $5,000 to $15,000 range, sophisticated counterfeiters join the game.

“There are truly good counterfeits and there are bad counterfeits,” says Connors, whose Atlanta-based company sells previously-owned purses — some have never actually been used — that range from $200 to $15,000 (she just sold a limited edition Channel bag for $9,800). She also offers an authentication service; for a fee, they’ll tell you whether you got a great deal or a great fake.

Connors says she has seen counterfeit bags selling for $1,000 in an attempt to replicate one that sells new for $12,000.

“It’s counterfeit, but it’s a beautifully crafted bag,” Connors says. “It’s just not Hermes.”

For many in the pricey purse universe, it matters more to have a real bag than one just dressed up to look like the real deal. Some will buy second-hand through operations like Bella Bag to get a discount on an authentic bag, while others in the pre-owned world will test the waters of eBay, Craigslist or even yard sales hoping to score a big deal. And that’s where the buyer has the best chance to end up with the fake — which sometimes the owner didn’t even realize.

The one clear way to avoid fakes, of course, is to buy the purses new from an authorized dealer. Ronnie Modena, a New York City teacher, has about 20 purses in her closet that are mainly in the $500 to $700 range and just snagged a deal on a CC Skye bag at a one-day sale at Saks.

“If I can’t have the real deal, I don’t want it,” she said. “I don’t want a knock-off and I don’t want one someone has used.”

Nora (who asked that her last name not be used), a Southern California healthcare professional, said she has no problem being a bag that’s previously own — as long as it’s the real deal.

“If I cannot afford an authentic handbag, I will wait until I can afford it or do without,” she says. “The quality of an authentic handbag is superior and because I tend to keep my handbags I prefer that they are high quality and timeless. High end handbags are an investment and therefore it is important to be confident that they are authentic.”

We asked MarkMonitor, a company that ferrets out online fakes, to offer some tips to help you smell out a counterfeit when you’re shopping online. Here are some things they said to keep in mind:

  • Prices that are too good to be true are always a tip-off. There are plenty of sites selling fakes that sell high-end purses at 10 to 20 percent of full retail but some counterfeiters are getting smarter and selling their goods at 40 to 60 percent of full retail – in other words, the type of discount that you might see at a big end-of-season sale. It’s important to check out the site as carefully as the description of the purse.
  • When examining a site to determine whether it is legit, look at the “About” or “Company” page. Counterfeiters lavish a lot of care on the product pages, picking up descriptions and photos from legitimate sources, but they sometimes skimp on the company pages. Does the page seem professional – well-written copy, lack of spelling and grammatical mistakes, etc.? Does the page give a physical address or phone number? Check the number and see how professional the customer service reps are when answering your questions.
  • What about shipping and return policies? Privacy policies? Legitimate sites will take the time to craft well-thought-out policies that follow best practices and spell out the particulars clearly. Not only will you be able to make a fully-informed decision on the total cost of the purchase, but you’ll get important clues on the legitimacy of the site – and the goods.
  • Is there an FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) link on the site? Again, this is an area where many sites peddling fakes will skimp. Some of them, though, will even spell out that they are selling “replica” goods or “homage” goods, a sure sign of fakes.
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