HOUSTON - From groceries to clothes to electronics, millions of Americans are shopping online.
They want convenience, but what people might be getting instead are dangerous counterfeit products. And some of them are coming from sellers in the Houston area.
No long lines. No hunting for a parking space and super-fast delivery.
The pros of buying online through Amazon and eBay keep piling up. But Nick Campbell of Sacramento, California may have found the first con.
"It doesn't make me feel safe buying certain products from eBay," Campbell said.
He purchased a "Genuine Apple Macbook Pro refurbished charger."
His wife plugged it in to her MacBook. When it didn't appear to be charging, Campbell tried it on his own computer.
"It fried the computer," he explained.
Not just one computer. The $25 charger Campbell bought on eBay rendered both MacBooks useless. Apple told him repairs would cost more than $1200.
"eBay was 'Sir, don't worry. We will make sure you get your $24.98 refunded,'" Campbell recalled. "That doesn't come close to touching the damage that actually occurred."
The charger Campbell purchased was counterfeit.
We know because we went to the same seller, 24HourChargers.com, and ordered the same charger four months after Campbell.
When it arrived, we confirmed the seller is in our backyard. The return address was listed as 13220 Murphy Road in Stafford. That is the same address 24 Hour Chargers has listed as it principal office with the Texas Secretary of State's Office. We sent a photographer to the warehouse wearing a hidden camera.
"Yeah, is this where they sell like Macbook Pro Chargers and cell chargers and stuff like that?" our photographer asked the man who came to the door.
"Uh no, we're actually a fulfillment center," the man responded.
"What's that?" asked our photographer.
"Fulfillment center, so we have several clients that we do shipping for them," the man explained.
"I thought this was an address on a website to get a Macbook Pro charger," our photographer continued.
"Oh no, we do like a lot of fulfillment for different and stuff, like an Amazon fulfillment center," he answered.
Hold that thought.
Let's go back to the charger shipped to us and the one shipped to Campbell from the same Stafford address. We asked senior electronics engineer Michael Stahl and Dave Reiter of Verite Forensic Engineering to compare it to an authentic Apple Macbook charger. They measured the weight, the volts and looked inside the products by x-ray.
"You can see there's a lot more components and a lot more electronic circuitry in the Apple charger than there is in this one," Reiter explained pointing to side by side X-rays of the products.
They confirmed the Apple charger we bought online from 24HourCharger is a fake. They say it's missing important safety features that make it a dangerous device.
"There's no intrinsic safety," explained Stahl. "So you're at risk. That could damage the electronics in the laptop or you're also at risk of creating a potential fire."
We found many complaints online, consumers sharing those exact concerns.
"It buzzed every time I plugged it in and would get SUPER HOT," wrote one consumer on Sitejabber.
"They were all over the United States," said Denisha Maxey of the Houston Better Business Bureau.
She said complaints poured in for three companies the BBB linked by common addresses and phone numbers. In all, they received 190 complaints from 2015 until now for Cellular Gadget, MaxChargers and then 24HourChargers.
"It was the same exact pattern of complaints," Maxey said. "It was either shorting out their computer system or it didn't work at all."
"Did the business ever respond?" we asked.
"We never got a response from the business," Maxey answered.
There were 5 stars listed for the same charger we proved counterfeit and months after Campbell gave his proof to eBay.
"The fact that eBay hasn't done their investigations doesn't seem to be interested in de-listing things that have been shown to them to be counterfeit, that's problematic for me," a frustrated Campbell said.
By email, an eBay representative said the 24HourCharger's account had already been restricted from selling on eBay before our inquiry, but he wouldn't say when that happened.
When Campbell persisted sending emails and text messages to 24HourChargers, threatening to report them to the FBI, the company did finally send him a $1200 payment for his damaged laptops.
The payment came from a company called Lightbeam Express. Its business address comes back to the Stafford warehouse as well.
"About 40 percent of the items that we purchased online turned out to be counterfeit," said
Kimberly Gianopoulos, the lead investigator with the Government Accountability Office.
The GAO said it's a growing problem. Out of 47 items it purchased on sites like Amazon and eBay, 20 were counterfeit.
"You're assuming you're going to receive when that package arrives us what you saw on the internet and that is not always the case," Gianopoulos said.
When we stopped by that Stafford warehouse with our camera, the same employee told consumers reporter Amy Davis their business model has suddenly changed.
"We want to know why you're selling counterfeit products online," Davis asked the man.
"I have no idea who that is," the man quickly responded.
"What do you mean you have no idea who this is? You haven't even had a chance to look at it yet," Davis countered.
"It's like a hub for gas stations over here," the man who identified himself as Iman Ali said.
"This is a hub for gas stations?" Davis asked.
"Yeah," he answered.
"Cause when we stopped by a couple of weeks ago, you told us that this was an Amazon fulfillment center," Davis said.
"It used to be," the man nodded.
"Two weeks ago?" Davis asked.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah... It used to be an Amazon fulfillment center," he said. "We used to sell on Amazon and stuff, but we've stopped that. We never made any money so all we do over here is just operate gas stations."
A Porsche 911 parked in front of the warehouse and driven by the man we spoke with is registered to the owners of one of the many companies selling and shipping the fake chargers.
His name is Aziz Rupani. He runs a company called Lightbeam Express, LLC. But the man at the business claimed he didn't know Rupani.
"I don't know who that is. I'm sorry," he told Davis.
"So you don't even know who your car is registered to? That sounds ridiculous, sir," Davis said.
By the time Davis returned to Channel 2, the business had removed all of its so-called "Genuine Apple Macbook chargers" from its websites.
What is left are the same dangerous chargers with no Apple logo.
The following websites and businesses are affiliated with 24HourChargers:
- Lightbeam Express, LLC
- Evershine Trading
Tips to avoid getting duped
1. Unless you know them, you should try to avoid third-party sellers. On Amazon, you will minimize your risk by buying items that are shipped from and sold by Amazon directly.
2. If you are buying a product that is sold by a third party seller, check their reviews on & off of Amazon or eBay. Google the name of the company. Look for the company's website. Is there a physical address listed? Call the customer service number listed for the company on its website. Are they easy to reach?
3. Look to see what other products the seller has listed. Is the seller the manufacturer of the product?
Are they similar or a hodge podge of items? Can you tell the nature of the business by the items they have listed for sale (electronics company, beauty products retailer, etc)?
4. If you suspect a product you purchased is NOT authentic, report it to Amazon or eBay. They will refund your money & investigate your claims. This helps the e-tailers ferret out counterfeiters and product other consumers.
5. You should also report counterfeit items to StopFakes.gov.
An eBay spokesman said, “Consumers can shop eBay’s 1-plus billion items with confidence, knowing we have key partnerships and processes in place with rights-owners to ensure a trusted shopping experience.”
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