AnnMarie Highsmith AnnMarie Highsmith
Executive Assistant Commissioner, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Office of Trade


August 14, 2023


Wow!  I can’t believe that it’s back-to-school time again.  It feels like summer has barely started – and I bet our students feel the same way.   

This time of year brings back memories of my own family creating our back-to-school lists and stocking up on everything the Highsmith kids needed to start the school year on the right foot.  The back-to-school rush carries with it the excitement of new possibilities, growth, and getting back into the routine of school, homework, and extracurricular activities.  It also begs the question of how we, as parents and consumers, can keep our children, schools, and communities safe. 

As the Executive Assistant Commissioner (EAC) of the Office of Trade in U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), I learn regularly about some pretty harrowing examples of how counterfeit goods can cause significant harm to consumers – in some cases even death.  When I was raising my own kids, I wish I had known what I do now about how some of these dangerous goods can make their way into households and into the hands of some of our most vulnerable consumers – children.   

After working on many, many seizures in my time at CBP, I can confidently say that the types of goods that are susceptible to harmful counterfeiting run the gamut.  Last fiscal year (FY), CBP made almost 21,000 seizures, which equates to nearly 25 million counterfeit goods.  Had they been genuine, the value of these counterfeit goods would have amounted to a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of nearly $3 billion.  In the first three quarters of this FY alone, CBP has seized counterfeit goods valued at nearly $2 billion if they had been genuine. 

CBP has seized fake goods in all product commodity groups, such as children’s backpacks and lunchboxes with zippers made with high levels of lead and mattress covers and lamps bearing counterfeit product safety labels and safety certification marks.  As our stylish students pick out their first day of school outfits, parents should be aware that wearing apparel and footwear are on the top ten list of commodity types most frequently seized this year by CBP for being counterfeit.   

There really isn’t any product that illegal actors won’t exploit to make a quick buck.  Sunglasses and eyeglasses don’t fall far behind clothing and sneakers on our most frequent seizures list and counterfeit contact lenses pose some particularly frightening health risks. 

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) recently released a report, Dangerous Fakes: Trade in Counterfeit Goods that Pose Health, Safety and Environmental Risks (OECD/EUIPO, 2022) stating that a major online retailer of colored contacts was importing counterfeit, misbranded contact lenses and selling them over the internet without a prescription to tens of thousands of U.S. consumers.  These contacts were not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and they were later tested and found to be contaminated with potentially hazardous bacteria – no thanks.   

Our partners at Homeland Security Investigations also recently found that potentially unsafe bicycle helmets are widely available online (Homeland Security Investigations, 2022).  These helmets lack safety certifications that are set by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which require a certain level of protection from a skull fracture on impact, and may crack on minimal impact, potentially causing tragic head trauma to riders of all ages.  These are just a few examples of the range of counterfeit products the U.S. government has encountered in recent years.   

We’re not trying to scare anyone, but our goal at CBP is to protect American families from the dangers of these counterfeit goods, and we take that very seriously.  That’s one of the reasons that we partner with trade associations, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, educating consumers through public awareness campaign efforts, and enforcing Intellectual Property Rights policy and regulations at the border.   

Counterfeit goods have the potential to affect any product on the market that is sold to consumers, including handbags/wallets, electronics, medication, footwear, personal hygiene products, and more.  Not only can counterfeit goods be made of harmful ingredients or substandard materials, but they also disrupt the American economy, and can support criminal organizations.   

In other words, transnational criminal organizations often use the profits generated by the sale of counterfeit goods to fund other criminal activity like drug trafficking, and they may be using unethical forms of production - like forced labor - to allow them to sell their products at an even further reduced cost.  This criminal activity wastes your hard-earned money and directly undermines the safety of our families. 

My years as a public servant at CBP has informed the way I approach a busy shopping season.  While shopping online this back-to-school season, I urge you and your family to #ShopSmart and avoid counterfeit goods by using these best practices:

  1. Trust your instincts: If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.
  2. Insist on secure transactions: Make sure your payments are submitted via websites beginning with https:// (the “s” stands for secure) and look for a lock symbol at the bottom of your browser.
  3. Scrutinize labels, packaging, and contents: Look for missing or expired dates on perishable products, broken or non-existent safety seals, missing warranty information, or otherwise unusual packaging. 
  4. Report fake products:Report unsafe counterfeit products to U.S. Customs Border and Protection and the National Intellectual Property Rights Center.  
  5. Spread the word: Share these tips!  Teach your family, friends and coworkers about the prevalence and danger of counterfeits.   

Kids can get involved, too!  Our partners at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office offer an array of resources and games to help kids understand the dangers of counterfeit goods.   

If you think you have purchased a counterfeit good, you can report it online at the CBP e-Allegations portal or call 1-800-BE-ALERT.  

As we approach the end of summer, I wish you all a safe and successful school year!

The Truth Behind Counterfeits

Learn more about the truth behind counterfeits in a video from CBP.

Additional Resources:  


ICE HSI (2022, August 8). Counterfeit Goods: A Danger to Public  

OECD/EUIPO (2022, March 17). Dangerous Fakes: Trade in Counterfeit Goods that Pose Health, Safety and Environmental Risks, Illicit Trade, OECD Publishing, Paris,

About the authors

AnnMarie Highsmith

AnnMarie Highsmith