Social media has largely been to thank for democratizing ideals of beauty, but it’s also proving to be an accessible tool for counterfeiters.
While fake beauty products have long been found in flea markets and massive e-commerce marketplaces, social media platforms are now a favorite destination of those looking to lure in unsuspecting fans of brands such as Urban Decay, Fenty Beauty and Kylie Cosmetics.
In 2017, more than 50 percent of suspected online infringements were found on Facebook and Instagram alone. That’s according to a recent report from online brand protection firm Red Points, which looked at 50,000 suspected infringements related to cosmetics. EBay accounted for about 30 percent, while AliExpress, Amazon, Alibaba and Taobao accounted for the remaining 20 percent.
“Brands don’t only have to monitor Amazon and Alibaba, but now they are contending with postings on social media sites that guide customers to a website, or advertise and figure out how to sell the product through the platform,” said intellectual property lawyer Kelly McCarthy, whose clients include Kat Von D Beauty, Bite Beauty, Fenty Beauty by Rihanna, Marc Jacobs Beauty and Ole Henriksen of Denmark, in addition to parent company Kendo Brands.
McCarthy said brands that have a major social media presence and are connected with a celebrity are often targets of counterfeiters on social media, with Kylie Cosmetics being one key example. “She is a huge social media user and has millions of followers, and those followers are going to be creating trails for advertisers to follow,” she said.
A quick search for Kylie Cosmetics, for example, revealed an account called @kyliejennercosmeticsofficial that appears to post fake Lip Kits and links out to a website that appears to be the same as the Kylie Cosmetics website. (Kylie Cosmetics did not respond to request for comment.)
But the researchers found that beauty scammers aren’t just creating imitation Instagram accounts or posting sales listings for counterfeit goods on Facebook; many infringements are in the form of advertisements, posts or links that lead to other platforms.
“Platforms provide advertisers with data to sell advertising — whether that shows how many people have engaged or clicked, or what [a star] wore to the Met Gala, or whatever,” McCarthy said. “They can say, ‘OK, we want to appeal to the audience who follows the Kardashians, so tell us the best advertising opportunities for that.’”
Counterfeiters also comment on posts of legitimate brands with promotions of copies, and often purchase followers to appear legitimate. Accounts called @fentybeauty_makeup and @fentybeauty_free.makeup promoting giveaways of Fenty Beauty by Rihanna have 28,000 and 20,000 followers, respectively. (A representative from Fenty Beauty declined to comment.)
The study also surveyed 200 women aged 18 to 30, and found that more than 45 percent of respondents had purchased a cosmetics item through a social media post, with lipstick and mascara being the clear product leaders, at more than 20 percent each. While 57 percent said they would buy a product from a third-party seller if the item were discounted, almost 20 percent admitted to having bought a fake product online accidentally (which is to say nothing of those of those who don’t realize they’ve bought a counterfeit). Most of the completed purchases were on Amazon or eBay.
So who’s responsible?
In the eyes of consumers, it’s the platforms and the brands, rather than law enforcement, who are responsible for tackling imposters. As many as 50 percent of the participants in the study said that it is the brand owners’ responsibility to remove fake items from online platforms.
Both Facebook and Instagram have the same counterfeit report form to report intellectual property infringement, but it’s a bit of a gray area when a potential scammer comments on a post from a legitimate account.
Social media platforms can be “hit or miss” on how quickly they respond, McCarthy said. “And in the meantime, the seller has started a whole new account or done something different. It’s a constant battle where the ball keeps moving, and brands want the marketplaces to do more, and marketplaces want the brands to do more.”
But in the fake-news era, she said, “Platforms get into trouble when they close their eyes and say, ‘We don’t see any evil; this is a free-flowing marketplace.’ That has backfired, and now they are taking actions to vet postings.”
In addition to its Intellectual Property Help Center, Instagram has boosted its counter-attack with a global “notice-and-takedown” program, including a team that provides around-the-clock coverage in multiple languages. The team can remove reported content and disable the accounts of repeat and blatant infringers. Instagram has gradually improved its approach to counterfeiters, specifically, and responds to most reports within 24 hours, according to an Instagram spokesperson.
“Fake or counterfeit goods are not allowed on Instagram; our Community Guidelines state that the Instagram community must follow the law when offering to sell or buy goods. If someone believes their intellectual property is being infringed, we encourage them to report it us,” they said.
It’s hard to know just how much this impacts the bottom line of brands, and the brands contacted for this story declined to provide specifics. According to estimates from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, illegal cosmetics cost the industry $75 million a year.
McCarthy emphasized that not only does every counterfeit sale hurt a brand’s reputation, but there can be serious health risks. “It’s hard to get the brands to provide any sort of substantive info other than, ‘We take this seriously and work hard to protect against this,’” McCarthy said. “I think it’s a large problem that a lot of them are focusing legal department energy on, but it’s not something they want info out there about, [as it may]l tip people off or identify a strategy they are employing.”
But to be clear, smart brands are wise to pay attention.
“You can’t ignore the social media function — it’s no longer people just posting about their counterfeit Kylie products they got at the local flea market. It’s not enough to just look at those and say, ‘That’s not really cutting into our sales,’” she said. “It really is an epidemic — it’s a multitrillion-dollar problem.”