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‘Dupe Influencers’ Peddling Counterfeits on the Rise, AAFA Says

The American Apparel and Footwear Association’s new report documents the rise of a disturbing new digital trend. Social media stars are increasingly using their sway to steer consumers toward fake footwear, apparel and accessories, the group revealed.

Influencers have been a part of the social media landscape for more than a decade, and have become an integral part of many brands’ marketing strategies. The relative relatability of these Instagram, YouTube and TikTok personalities—compared with celebrity spokespersons, for example—makes the goods they’re pushing seem more accessible to the everyday shopper. While social media users recognize that these tastemakers are often paid to pose with products, the influencer effect remains largely lucrative for brands. In fact, the global influencer industry is projected to be worth $15 billion by next year, according to AAFA’s research.

The new study study illuminates a more sinister side to the influencer ecosystem, however. AAFA reported that “dupe influencers”—or individuals with clout on social media who share and review high-end counterfeit goods—are on the rise, generating millions of likes, shares and sales.

Dupe influencer impacts

These fakes result in more than just lost revenue for labels, the organization said. The dupes, which appear across a wide range of brands, from haute couture fashion houses like Chanel and Gucci to coveted labels like Nike and Lululemon, are often produced using “substandard or unsafe materials” that could cause bodily harm, AAFA said. Because they cost much less to produce, and are made using unauthorized supply chains, there is no way to ensure that these products meet health and safety standards.

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Counterfeits, not surprisingly, are often made in factories that spew toxic chemicals into the air and surrounding ecology, AAFA said, and the impact on workers is also palpable. These factories pay workers a pittance—if they’re even paid at all. The issue of forced labor has become highly publicized in recent months, and the underground production of illegal products makes for the perfect cover for human rights abuses. The sale of fakes has also been linked to the funding of organized crime and terrorism, AAFA alleged.

Finally, AAFA pointed out that the sale of dupes hurts the economy. “When brand owners lose the ability to collect a premium price for their branded goods, it leads to diminished innovation as brand owners are less likely to invest in creating innovative products,” according to the Department of Homeland Security’s Combating Trafficking in Counterfeit and Pirated Goods report to the president in January 2020.

In fact, the agency projected that counterfeits are expected to displace between $1-$2 trillion in global sales from legitimate companies, which will ultimately result in job losses. In 2013, as many as 2.6 million workers lost their jobs due to the impacts of counterfeiting on brands’ bottom lines, and that number is expected to double by next year.

Tools and tactics

Despite the threat of significant penalties and prison time, influencers continue to peddle fakes with growing abandon across their platforms. Using tactics like “unboxing” videos, wherein they reveal the contents of their packages, influencers are able to provide full reviews of not just the products, but also the feeling of receiving and unwrapping them, even going as far as to showcase the collateral, like receipts and hang tags, that came with the item. The interactive experience has proven to entice social media users with an effectiveness that goes beyond the impact of a simple photo. One influencer with more than 32.9 million likes said that one of her most popular and viral TikToks was the unboxing of a designer dupe handbag.

A screenshot of an unboxing video shows an influencer opening packages.
A screenshot of an unboxing video shows an influencer opening packages. AAFA

Giveaways have also become an irresistibly engaging strategy for influencers hawking dupes, the AAFA wrote, as these interactive contests allow followers to win items like handbags and garments simply through engagement. “Through online giveaways, dupe influencers take a more active role in placing counterfeits into the hands of consumers,” AAFA wrote. “When dupe influencers receive free product and, in turn, promote that product through giveaways or discount codes, they further partake in illicit activity and potentially become accessories in the trafficking of illegal counterfeits.”

More insidious still, dupe influencers have developed methods to evade detection and censure by brands and online selling platforms, from Alibaba and its subsidiaries to DHGate, eBay, Amazon and others, which are constantly working to unearth counterfeits and illicit sellers. One such strategy involves the use of tutorial videos, wherein social media stars give their followers a step-by-step account of how to find counterfeit duds on the web.

Screenshots of an instructive video showing users how to find fakes on DHGate.
Screenshots of an instructive video showing users how to find fakes on DHGate. AAFA

One influencer told her followers, “The most important thing for finding dupes is that you can’t ever type in the brand name. You want to type in designer or luxury and whatever else you want.” Influencers also commonly note that when searching online sales platforms or Instagram, for example, photos of dupes will often appear with brand logos missing or blurred to avoid detection. Sellers will provide real photos upon request, they say.

“Hidden links” have become a popular covert method for illegal sellers to transact on legitimate sales platforms, AAFA added. Influencers will point to product pages on e-commerce sites with photos of innocuous, unbranded product with the understanding that ordering that product will actually trigger the sale of a dupe. The influencers will caption these posts with directives like “Order this—get this” alongside photos of counterfeit items.

Influencer shopping apps like LikeToKnow.It have also become hotbeds for dupe influencer activity. Unwittingly, these apps—which enable an influencer’s followers to easily purchase items that they’re wearing in a given photo post, without rooting around the web for where to buy—have been infiltrated by brands that exclusively sell fake merch, and influencers are cashing in.

Beating back the trend

The influencer industry is new enough that it hasn’t yet found itself mired in stringent regulations, AAFA said, but new legislation could be forthcoming—largely spurred by pushback by wronged brands and selling platforms.

Last fall, Amazon sued two social media influencers who it alleged were teaming up with third-party sellers to boost counterfeits on its marketplace, sidestepping the e-tailer’s counterfeit detection systems through the use of hidden links.

Last year, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released a statement on endorsement guidelines for influencers as it continues to monitor their behavior on the web. While the agency focused on the proliferation of fake reviews and undisclosed endorsements with this 2020 review, its next steps are likely to include new requirements for social media platforms and advertisers, and decisions on whether they activate civil penalty liability. “Given the FTC’s interest in influencer transparency and disclosures,” AAFA wrote, “it may only be a matter of time before dupe influencer activity is subject to greater scrutiny by the Commission.”

In the meantime, social media platforms must augment their efforts to curb the rise of dupe influencers, AAFA said. They should work proactively to block relevant hashtags like “#designerdupes,” “#designerreplicas,” or “#brandnamecopies,” it added, as these search tools are used to help shoppers find illicit goods. TikTok recently blocked the “#designerdupe” hashtag, AAFA said by way of example, but many others remain in use across the platform. Social media companies should also terminate the accounts of influencers who repeatedly promote counterfeits, it added.

A fake Gucci T-shirt being sold on Instagram using the hashtag "#designerinspired."
A fake Gucci T-shirt being sold on Instagram using the hashtag “#designerinspired.” Instagram

“Social media platforms have terms of use and community guidelines to address illegal content on their sites, including the sale of counterfeit goods,” it wrote. “Yet, even with these policies in place, content put out by dupe influencers continues to proliferate across social channels.”