The Upgrade

How Big Printer Is Trying to Crush the Counterfeit Ink Trade

That great deal you found on Amazon may have a dark side

TThe team moves through a dark, narrow hallway, emerging into a room crammed with an odd sort of contraband: toner and ink cartridges stacked almost to the ceiling. Authorities question a woman who deflects at first before finally admitting that all of them are counterfeits.

The video, shot in India and shared with me by Hewlett-Packard (HP Inc), illustrates the raids local authorities have conducted hundreds of times around the world to try and stem the flow of counterfeit ink and toner cartridges. It’s reminiscent of a drug bust, and the economic stakes are nearly as high.

According to the Imaging Supplies Coalition (ISC), an organization representing the business interests of companies like HP, Epson, and Canon, counterfeit printer consumables cost the industry $3 billion a year. Given how much an official ink replacement costs, you probably think the industry can afford the loss.

But as Consumer Reports pointed out last year, there are a couple reasons these companies charge as much as they do for your ink. The first is the most obvious: You’re paying off your printer when you buy ink. The cost of printers is low because, in the long run, printer manufacturers make more on ink. But in the short term, these companies have to pay for the cost of components, as well as developing and building the printer to begin with. In addition, the ink and toner cartridges are more than just containers—they’re complex (read: expensive) pieces of technology.

Seized counterfeit toner cartridges. Photo courtesy Hewlett-Packard

HP and the ISC wouldn’t comment on consumer frustration with the high cost of ink, but they both acknowledge that people naturally look online for the best ink prices they can find. These knockoff deals supposedly lead to HP fielding customer complaints, even though HP didn’t sell them the bogus printer supplies.

“When you have a brand that carries this amount of customer recognition and trust, there’s always somebody trying to capitalize on that brand trust,” says Eduardo Macias, director of brand protection at Hewlett-Packard.

HP, though, is not alone in its efforts to stamp out counterfeit supplies. Epson also works with local authorities around the world to support anti-counterfeiting raids.

The Buyers

Counterfeit printing supplies predate modern inkjet and laser printer technology. In 1994, the printer industry founded the ISC. Back in those days, ISC president Allen D. Westerfield tells me, the industry was dealing with counterfeit ribbons, dot matrix printer supplies, and typewriter wheels. Ribbons were literally being reinked and repackaged by counterfeiters. As the print industry shifted to inkjet and laser printers, the counterfeit consumables market shifted to toner and ink cartridges.

Then came the internet and e-commerce, which catalyzed an explosion of counterfeit goods. The trade is large and profitable, there’s a ready supply of spent cartridges to refill and resell, and there’s the obvious value proposition to consumers looking for the best prices. “The internet and e-commerce made it easier,” Westerfield says.

Search results for ink or toner cartridges in Amazon, Google, and eBay are a mix of legitimate and counterfeit supplies, though there’s virtually no way for you to tell the difference until you get the cartridge in your hands or put it in your printer.

Hewlett-Packard executives told me that for small businesses buying in bulk, counterfeit products are sorted into 90% of deliveries.

HP has for some time used hard-to-duplicate holographic labels on its cartridges, and its printers can detect counterfeit cartridges and advise users to remove them before they start printing.

Still, it might be hard to overcome that satisfaction of simply paying less for your consumables, especially if you’re a business that buys toner and ink cartridges in bulk. In those instances, counterfeit might even be mixed in with legitimate supplies. HP executives told me that for small businesses buying in bulk, counterfeit products are sorted into 90% of deliveries.

For consumers, the best way to avoid counterfeit consumables might be going analog and buying supplies at your local brick-and-mortar store. Experts told me it’s highly unlikely they’ll encounter counterfeit ink at, say, their local Staples.

Unprintable Crimes

Inside counterfeit ink and toner supplies is, surprisingly, real ink and toner. However, the ink is sometimes mixed with water, and the quality of the toner is unlikely match what you’ll find from legit suppliers. HP told me that these supplies generally don’t last as long as genuine products, and they can’t be guaranteed for things like water resistance and colorfastness in normal daylight conditions. In addition, using unauthorized consumables can void your printer warranty.

There are also environmental concerns. “One of the challenges for end users… is that you have no idea what chemical components, what plastic, what electronics have been used in the making of these cartridges,” says Hewlett-Packard’s Macias, who adds that the company has seized some counterfeit supplies that use materials banned in Europe.

Even if you dismiss the environmental concerns and print quality (how much do offices that print thousands of pages per month care about colorfastness?), the counterfeit ink trade is not, according to HP, a victimless crime.

There is “the misinformation on consumer side: ‘I’m buying a knockoff product, saving a little money, what harm am I doing?’” Macias says. But the reality is that those dealing in counterfeit goods, even those as mundane as printer consumables, are often involved in other illegal activities.

Last year, Hewlett-Packard was involved in 500 separate raids, in which they confiscated 170 million counterfeit toner products and components.

The organizations behind counterfeit ink and toner cartridges are, Macias claims, “big organized crime organizations.” Unlike, say, the drug trade, counterfeit consumables can, from the outside, look just like a legitimate business. Macias tells me that some of the storefronts selling these supplies in the tech malls of India have no idea they’re selling illegal goods. But that low-profile, high-traffic business can fund other, more dire crimes.

“No rational consumer would choose to support organizations that endorse human trafficking, arms trafficking,” Macias s.

Authorities don’t typically raid these storefronts. Instead, HP, Epson, and other printer manufacturers work with local authorities to identify the original source. That involves a lot of time, patience, and surveillance. Local law enforcement will usually conduct the raid, while some of, say, HP’s regional investigation managers will tag along to identify the counterfeits and, later, testify about what they discovered. Last year, HP was involved in 500 separate raids, in which they confiscated 170 million counterfeit toner products and components.

Counterfeit ink packaging. Image courtesy Hewlett-Packard

Identifying counterfeits isn’t always easy, especially if counterfeiters are using original manufacturer’s cartridges. Sometimes, however, the counterfeiters make it easier by trying to do more. During a recent raid in Egypt, investigators found counterfeiters manufacturing their own knockoff packaging, which is easy for investigators to identify.

Beating the Knockoffs

Stemming the flow of fake products is a multipronged effort. In addition to on-the-ground enforcement, Westerfield says the industry needs more control over products on the internet. HP works closely with Amazon to try and head off counterfeit results. But Westerfield told me the industry has to do “a better job of educating the consumer and user about what problems are caused by counterfeit products.”

The industry may get some help from the U.S. government. In April, President Donald Trump signed an executive order directing government agencies to investigate how counterfeit and pirated goods end up in the United States. “If you’ve seen the latest Trump executive directive, he has asked several agencies to look into problem that inappropriate marketing has caused to us economically… [H]e’s basically talking about counterfeiting,” Westerfield says.

The executive order tangentially addresses another growing threat to the ink and toner industry: third-party inks that abuse original patents to build what are essentially duplicates. Unlike counterfeits, these cartridges are marketed under the companies’ own brand names.

For now, the plan is to continue working with agencies around the world to stem the flow of counterfeit consumables, improve their own technology to make it harder to create and sell fake consumables, and educate consumers and businesses on the downsides of using counterfeit ink and toner cartridges.

“When you take that multipronged approach, I do feel like we’re winning,” Macias says.

Perhaps, but back in India, ink and toner counterfeiters are posting bail and, two months later, returning to their fake ink businesses.

Tech expert, journalist, social media commentator, amateur cartoonist and robotics fan.

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