" Now a days, counterfeiters are targeting not only of luxury brands but also a range of goods, and some of the trends are frightening because of the products involved. The programme Undercover Asia Investigates "
KUALA LUMPUR: It is a scam that could endanger efforts to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.
But Malaysian pharmacist (Zeff Tan) knows how to tell the difference between real surgical masks and the counterfeit or sub-quality ones - by using a common lighter.
The filter material of a true three (3)-ply mask is made out of plastics, such as polythene and also polypropylene. Light it up and " because it is made of plastics, instead of producing sparks, they actually melt ".
If it is made from paper or a mixture of plastic and paper, then there would be " some kind of fire ".
He is sounding the alarm at a time when the problem has come to the fore worldwide. In March, 2020 in an operation dubbed Pangea XIII, Interpol led enforcement agencies from 90 countries to scour the Internet for fake medical items.
In one (1) week, they uncovered around 600 cases of counterfeit surgical masks sold online. It led to the seizure of 34,000 fake or sub-standard masks.
One of the countries engaged in the operation was Malaysia, where the problem of counterfeits is endemic.
COVID-19 may have given a new twist to the issue, but fake masks are not the only counterfeits in circulation that could have a health impact on Malaysians.
Today, counterfeiters are targeting not only luxury brands but a range of goods, from high-street beauty products - which can spark skin allergies - to car spare parts, which implications for a road safety.
Even food is now being faked issues, either labelled a certain brand that did not come from that manufacturer, or more insidiously, the content of the food might not be what it is claimed to be.
In February 2019, for example, Malaysian authorities disposed about RM 450,000 ( S$147,000) worth of fake and illegal goods - including food items - in Penang State, where there were nearly 100 reports of counterfeit food items in year 2019.
Some of the trends are frightening because of the products involved, which the programme Undercover Asia Investigates. And the question of how to solve the problem looks to be a tricky one.
Malaysia is not alone in struggling to keep fakes from infiltrating its consumer market.
The global trade in counterfeit and pirated goods has risen steadily from US$461 billion (S$653 billion) in 2013 to US$509 billion in 2016, according to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and European Union Intellectual Property Office estimates.
Among the most dangerous of these products are falsified medicines, of which an increasing amount is being produced and sold in Southeast Asia, reported the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime last year.
Every year, consumers in the region spend an estimated US$ 520 million to US$ 2.6 billion on falsified medicines, which can range from anti-cancer treatments to drugs for infertility and weight loss.
In Malaysia, fake medicines are often sold in unregulated outlets, such as roadside stalls, traditional medicinal halls and provision shops littered across the country, from cities to villages.
Many buyers cannot tell the real from the fake, as the latter often masquerades behind legitimate brands.
Fearing that others may buy the fake product unwittingly.
" IF you're taking counterfeit blood pressure medicine, your blood pressure wouldn't be well-regulated ".
" One tablet has the compound, another tablet is a placebo. So on one day, your pressure is controlled; on another day, it isn't controlled. You're risking your life.
Some of these sub-standard medications may be legitimately manufactured. But in terms of quality control, they either have insufficient active ingredients or contain impurities. They should be discarded but are illegally obtained and sold to patients instead.
The second type of counterfeits are medicines " blended with prohibited substances, such as steroids, allergy medications and painkillers ".
Taking them on a daily basis usually harms the liver and kidneys and " eventually leads to other types of organ failures ". This will cost your life also."
The National Consumer Complaints Centre's - Shabana Naseer as legal and policy division senior manager said, witnessed the dangers of these fakes when a consumer who was taking oral supplements for three (3) months passed out one day.
" She went to hospital, and then she realised that the product she was taking hadn't undergone our Ministry of Health's checks... Ever since then, she's stopped using the medicine, " said Shabana.
The market share of fake medicine in the country is 5 per cent, according to a 2013 study. But it is the mindset of Malaysians, rather than the prevalence of fake drugs, that worries.
" Most Malaysians are more price-oriented. So whichever sells cheaply, they'd buy that. They don't have the kind of mindset (that) 'you're selling that cheaply...reliable to you ?
" Because we're in comfort zone, we don't really have that kind of awareness."
A place like Malaysia is a target destination for fakes because it is a developing country; pointed out Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs senior economist Muhammad Adli Amirullah. In 2018, the median salary was RM 2,308.
The counterfeithers are helped by the fact that Malaysia is a nation of bargain hunters. As far back as 2011, a Nielsen Shopper Trends survey found that Malaysians were the most price-sensitive shoppers in the region.
" Most Malaysians are well aware of counterfeit goods. But they tend to still consume the counterfeit goods because of the huge price difference."
The harm in that, however, has been catastrophic for some. Around September 2018, 45 people died after consuming toxic alcohol. In May and June 2019, at least 17 more joined the death toll, and one (1) person became blind.
All reported similar symptoms, including varying degrees of nausea and blurred vision. Many were pronounced dead within the same day.
Malaysia is the "biggest market" for counterfeit liquor.
Fakes Issues can also come from reputable e-commerce platforms, despite their policies to protect intellectual property. One online store, for example, claims that it uses machine learning to automatically scan its platform to remove suspected counterfeits. Yet the online scams persist.
Owing to the growing popularity of online shopping, the National Consumer Complaint Centre in Selangor has been responding to more calls : 60 a day now. One in five (5) are about fakes bought online.
" It's hard for the authorities, and even for us, to monitor all of the market or the players online."
As law enforcers and counterfeiters continue to play cat and mouse, however, one company is developing a scanner that it thinks is the key to outsmarting at least some counterfeiters.
The machine, dubbed ProfilePrint, uses artificial intelligence to authenticate products within seconds. It was developed in collaboration with Singapore's Agency for Science, Technology and Research and the National University of Singapore.
It has been successfully tested on tea, beauty products and face masks. " All you need is about four (4) to five (5) grammes of the product...and our machine would be able to identify the molecular signature."
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