By Jean Whatley, tED magazine staff writer

Mike Johnston has first-hand knowledge of counterfeit electrical supplies infiltrating the market.  Johnston is the Executive Director of Standards and Safety for the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA). A few years back, a family member asked him to check out some troublesome GFCIs in his kitchen. Sure enough, Johnston said, some of the GFCIs were not working correctly. The defective units had no manufacturer's name and the product certification marks were suspect. A subsequent search for certification and product information with the testing laboratory revealed that the products were not listed. Concerns now were not only for the family member's home, but also for some 3,000 plus families in this upscale retirement community that could have been built using counterfeit GFCIs.

Compare that to an estimated 450,000 people in the Gulf Coast who have requested assistance from FEMA to rebuild in the aftermath of Harvey, and the potential for fraud is great. The NECA offers this important advice: buy smart and hire qualified electrical contractors to perform the work. It's that simple. If any electrical products are suspect, immediately notify the manufacturer and applicable qualified electrical testing laboratories.

"There is an increased level of risk beyond just the day-to-day risk of getting counterfeit materials in the Houston situation because of significant supply and demand issues," said Johnston. "Consumers, in their haste to get the lights back on, are vulnerable. They could put their families at risk. They think they're doing well, short term. In the long term, they could have a serious problem—somebody gets seriously injured or electrocuted, or the building burns down."

"Counterfeits kill," said Bryan Holland, Southern Region Field Representative for the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), when asked about the potential surge of foreign products into the U.S. market post Hurricane Harvey. "Genuine electrical products are tested and certified to nationally recognized product safety standards and other federally mandated criteria to prevent shock, electrocution, and fire. Counterfeit products are not."

According to Holland, counterfeits may also contain toxic materials, inferior materials, or other components that may not perform or operate as intended. NEMA offers the following advice:

  • Buy only reputable brands from only reputable sources. Great caution should be used when making online purchases. If the deal is too good to be true, it probably really is.
  • Look out for the red flags that a product may be counterfeit: abnormally generic package, missing labels and product markings, misspelled words, improper use of terminology, extremely large quantities at an extremely low price, missing instructions or warranty cards.
  • Watch for counterfeit listing marks and labels applied to unlisted, counterfeit, or refurbished electrical products.
  • If there is the slightest doubt, contact the manufacturer of the product. The genuine manufacturer has controls in place to identify genuine products from counterfeits.

Mike Johnston echoes Holland's advice to track down the origin (manufacturer) of the product if there's any question. "There are also methods and means to contact the certifying body, whether it's Underwriters Laboratories (UL), or whoever and just verify that it is a legitimate certified electrical product."

NECA members typically build to the applicable minimum standards and above said Johnston. "They're trained how to buy right and how to steer clear of shoddy products. This is not to say it couldn't happen to even qualified contractors in addition to unsuspecting owners."

Counterfeiters can be cagey. "It's not always just the product that is counterfeit, they could be carrying counterfeit product certification and listing marks," added Johnston. "So there's a false sense of security that the product is listed because of bogus labels. That's when it gets a little bit more difficult to detect. The problems are usually revealed when products are tested after they're first installed on the project. They don't function properly and lo and behold they discover that there's nothing in there but a receptacle device, there are no electronics."

Johnston acknowledges that not all imported electrical products are suspect; some are legitimate and meet the requirements of the North American electrical safety system. With the growing demand for electrical supplies needed for the monumental rebuilding already underway in the Gulf Coast, both NECA and NEMA remind manufacturers, distributors, contractors, and owners to be especially cautious. As Johnston said, "electricity isn't very forgiving and often does not give a second chance."