Watch CBSN Live

Dangers of Fake Holiday Electrical Wares

Your happy holidays can quickly turn disastrous if you don't have the right Christmas decorations.

Fire experts say one of the worst home hazards this holiday season is from counterfeit electrical products -- everything from fake tree lights to power cords that look like the real thing.

Write Susan on Twitter
E-mail Susan Koeppen

Daniel Baldwin, assistant commissioner of the Office of International Trade, told CBS News, "There is a significant volume coming into this country of unsafe products and counterfeit products."

U.S. Customs and Border Protection gave CBS News exclusive access to an undisclosed location where officers inspect shipments from overseas. Government data shows $31 million worth of phony electronics were seized this year -- outranking counterfeit handbags and clothing.

Baldwin said, "It's much more profitable than narcotics smuggling. It's a very profitable enterprise."

"Early Show" consumer correspondent Susan Koeppen explained counterfeiters make money by producing poorly made products that appear legitimate.

In a demonstration by Electrical Safety Foundation International, Brett Brenner, the president of Electrical Safety Foundation International, showed how some electrical devices use fewer essential components for safety.

"This is not something that we recommend that you do at home," he said, "but if you compare the amount of copper in the devices themselves, you'll see that the amount of copper is actually pretty scary."

Also look at packaging, Koeppen said. The fake products, she pointed out, don't use a company name and often have misspelled words. A legitimate product, on the other hand, carries a hologram label from Underwriters Laboratories (UL), which certifies the device as safety tested.

But sometimes even the UL mark can be phony, Koeppen said, pointing out a counterfeit label on an extension cord.

Koeppen said, "So you may save a few bucks if you buy a cheap extension cord but it could burn your house down?"

Brenner responded, "Absolutely. Electricity is uniquely unforgiving. It can shock and it can kill you."

Koeppen and her team wanted to see if they could find fake tree lights for sale. So they headed out with fire marshals in Montgomery County, Md., to check discount stores for violations.

Within minutes, Ricardo Shepard, of the Montgomery County MD Fire and Rescue Service, discovered lights with phony certification labels. At another location, inspectors found lights with no labels at all. The same was true of a third location Koeppen visited.

"You know, it's kind of scary to think that somebody's going (to use these items,)" Shepard said.

All three stores, Koeppen added, have agreed to remove the counterfeit lights from their shelves.

Koeppen's tips for avoiding counterfeit electrical products:

• Shop at well known retailers. Many of these fake goods show up in small discount stores or mom and pop shops where they sell a little bit of everything.

• Look at the packaging. Fake goods often lack a company name or contact information, or even something as simple as a bar code. Look for a mark like the UL from Underwriters Laboratories, meaning it's been tested for safety.

• Pay attention to the details -- counterfeit goods are cheap -- and sometimes you can tell just by looking at the poor workmanship, or if it just seems flimsy.

View CBS News In