CBS Consumer Correspondent Herb Weisbaum explains all about these phony Pokemons and what to watch out for.
Kids know what Pokemon is. But just in case you don't: Pokemon is Japanese for "pocket monster." And it's the name of a phenomenally successful line of Nintendo video games, based on 150 different Pokemon characters. The character Pikachu is by far the best known of the bunch.
Warner Brothers took these wildy popular characters and turned them into a No. 1-rated TV program. This fall they'll hit the big-screen in their own full-length feature movie.
Right now there are a thousand licensed Pokemon products, from T-shirts to lunch boxes. There's also a Pokemon CD, No. 1 on Billboard's kids audio chart. And a Pokemon comic book is the top seller in the country.
So far in just four years, the Pokemon phenomenon has taken in more than $5 billion. No wonder the counterfeiters are trying to cash in.
Customs agents all across the country are now on alert for bogus Pokemon merchandise. And they're finding it.
Most of the counterfeits are coming from Taiwan, mainland China and Hong Kong.
Since June, nearly a million pirated Pokemon products have been seized coming through the port of Los Angeles. Everything from counterfeit trading cards to fake plush toys (some are cute but potentially dangerous because small parts can come off).
"And we're afraid that the consumer might really be hurt by these, these counterfeit products," said Thomas Skinner, an import specialist with the Customs Service in Southern California.
"Counterfeiters are known to cut corners, and they're not constructing these toys as well as legitimate manufacturers would," he said.
As Nintendo's top lawyer, Richard Flamm has the job of finding the counterfeits before they make it to market. "And they sell crap. And these products are extremely unsafe; they're extremely low-quality, and the consumers are getting ripped off by them," said Flamm.
While all sorts of Pokemon products are being counterfeited, trading cards top the list of things seized by customs agents.
Like most 11-year-olds, Kyt Brothers of McLean, Va., collects Pokemon cards and he got stuck with a couple of counterfeits. "Oh, I was not too happy," said Kyt.
His mother said he was almost in tears. Kyt's mom helped him get his money back.
But she was upset by the whole experience. "It's just sad; it's unfortunate that grownups have to take advantage of little kids who are interested in just collecting this stuff for fun," said Karen Brothers.
Some collectors are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for the rare cards.
How good are the fakes? Some are quite good, but if you know what you're looking for, you can spot a counterfeit card prety easily, said Jeff Christianson, senior vice president of Wizards of the Coast, which makes the real Pokemon Trading Card game.
And the companies selling the real Pokemon products are on the attack, hiring private firms to track down the Pokemon pirates.
Working with the police and federal marshals, Nintendo raided two stores in Los Angeles just a few weeks ago and came away with quite a haul.
They found more than a half a million pieces of counterfeit products, weapons, cash and forged customs information, Flamm said.
Nintendo said more legal action is planned.
Should parents care whether they buy the real thing or a counterfeit?
It turns out that the counterfeit products actually cost more than the authentic ones. So not only are you getting ripped off, but you're paying a premium to do so.
And the counterfeit toys may come with hazards. Eyes can be pulled off and there could be problems with paint, fabric and inks.
How can you spot the fakes?
- Look for the name "Pokemon," many counterfeits don't use it.
- Look for this seal showing that it's an official licensed Nintendo product.
- For trading cards: Hold it up to the light. If light comes through, it's a fake. The edges should be smooth not rough and rounded. The card should be the same size and the same color as the rest of your cards. Blurry text is a sure sign of a fake. Be careful where you buy your cards. If sold at retail it should be in wrapped, sealed packages.
For more tips on spotting the fakes, go to wizards.com.
For more on Pokemon products, go to pokemon.com
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