Price is the obvious first factor to take into consideration when working out whether you're buying the genuine article or a clever fake. But it's not the only factor, and in some cases it's not as relevant as you might imagine - some unscrupulous suppliers and shops have been known to seed stocks of real goods with fake ones.
The CEO of a top European bike brand told BikeBiz: "There are crooked distributors out there, especially in Asia. They add a few counterfeits amongst their real ones."
And the rewards make these risks worthwhile, adds the executive, who prefers to remain nameless: "A distributor normally works on a 30 to 40 percent mark-up. If the frame cost $5000 retail the distributor would pay $2500 but [with counterfeit frames] instead he now pays $500, giving him $2000 extra profit on one frame. If you only mix 20 percent of the product with this, you're doubling the profit of your company."
Naturally, quality of the delivered product is also a key determinant of fakeness, but when buying unseen via the internet, there's no chance to prod, probe, stroke or handle. "It's easy to spot counterfeit clothing products because of poor quality fabrics," says our leading CEO. "On frames, you can't tell."
In truth, it's not even possible to check the quality of bona fide bicycle frames because so much of the goodness is beneath the surface but all that glistens is not gold, and it's important to realise that photographs of products on the internet may be just as fake as the products you're sent. Ditto for UCI homologation decals and any other stickers or labels which you may think add authenticity.
Not everything available from Chinese sellers is fake, but a Chinese address is a red flag - of the warning variety, not the political kind.
Businesses based in Indonesia are also of potential harm to your bank balance, not so much because they will ship you fake goods but because they won't ship you anything at all. It's the websites and the deals that are fake.
Here are some more pointers on working out if you're about to buy a fake:
- Does the store have a website away from the retail marketplace? If not, why not? Best to steer clear.
- Is the shop an "official" stockist? Brand websites - especially for those which market big ticket items - will have lists of official dealers. If the shop you're looking at isn't on one of those lists it may not be legit. Some brands don't allow online sales whatsoever, so if you see products on websites from brands with this policy, then there's a rabbit away.
- Are the product listings complete? Does the online merchant want you to email for colour options, price or type of graphics? This is probably an indication the retailer is flying low, aiming to keep product details - and product photos - away from online search engines, pesky IP lawyers, and fake-spotting algorithms.
- Take online reviews with a pinch of salt. If a manufacturer is unscrupulous enough to make a fake, it's also going to manufacture reviews. A 5-star rating is no guarantee of realness.
- Look out for spelling mistakes - being guilty of poor grammar and sloppy spelling isn't a crime, but it's at least one of the indicators of dodgy dealing.
- Google is your friend. Cut and paste the name of the retailer into a well-known search engine and add key words such as "fake," "counterfeit" and "scam" to see if others have been bitten before you.
- Sites that request payment by bank transfer instead of credit card or PayPal are highly likely to be suspect.
If it all goes pear-shaped how easy will it be to get a refund, get a replacement product or - should an injury occur - sue the supplier of the bike or part which wasn't up to scratch? If you buy on cost alone, and buy from China, it's caveat emptor, buyer beware. Sending a product back to China to get a refund can quickly wipe out the original cost savings.
FAKING IT – Inside the shady world of counterfeit bikes, clothing and parts is a series of 20 articles. For offline reading convenience the 25,000 words can be found on a PDF, a Kindle file, an eBook and a Word document.