‘Tis the season for travelling, shopping, gift-giving and, if we’ve been good little boys and girls, gift receiving.

Travelling can sway even the most ardent anti-shoppers toward a little retail therapy. From picking up those shot glasses—unique in both a good and absolutely awful kitschy way!—to T-shirts, fridge magnets, local handicrafts or bargain electronics, shopping can be as much a part of travel as visas and vaccinations.

But there is one purchase that should always be avoided: counterfeit goods.

Not a Victimless Crime

Not only are many counterfeit items directly linked to organized crime—and often directly or indirectly connected to human trafficking, money laundering or sweat shops—but in many parts of the world, the purchase or even possession of counterfeit goods is illegal and can result in hefty fines for the buyer, even if purchased by accident.

Counterfeit-designer goods are a worldwide phenomenon. There are plenty of stores across Canada that sell fake Rolex watches, Louis Vuitton bags or Canada Goose coats—but when travelling, the minefield of fake goods is even greater from vendors strolling beaches with armloads of items or displaying their wares on sidewalks outside major tourist attractions.

knock-off nikes

If you find seemingly brand-new Nikes on a sidewalk sheet, they’re probably not Nikes. (Dino Geromella/iStock)

To the uninitiated, it’s often hard to differentiate a counterfeit item from the real thing—although the bargain-basement price is usually a pretty good indication. But regardless of whether you bought these sorts of items in good faith, the long arm of the law will take no pity. If caught, you will face severe consequences in some countries, including France and Italy.

Why Are Europe’s Laws so Strict?

Italy is home to many of the most coveted designer labels in the world—from Armani, Dolce and Gabbana, Versace and Valentino to sunglass-makers Luxottica, who own Ray-Ban, Persol and Oakley, and make shades for the likes of Chanel, Prada and Burberry.

Consequently, in an effort to protect its industry, it’s not surprising that Italy also has some of the harshest penalties for buying knock-offs. Not only can the police arrest you if caught in the act of buying fake goods, but you can also be nabbed at Italian airports if trying to leave the country with them.

Confiscation of the item is the least you should fear, with fines of up to €10,000 (CAD$14,000) also possible. The penalty doesn’t just apply to newly purchased items leaving Italy, either; even a five-year-old knock-off you bought elsewhere can be seized upon entering Italy. (Who knew that?!)

counterfeit goods europe

Barcelona, 2016: Counterfeit vendors wrapping up shop—literally. (Evgenij84/iStock)

Alas, if you bought that counterfeit item in good faith, believing it was real and just a great bargain, you can be assured the Italian authorities won’t have the same difficulty telling good from bad, and you are guaranteed they won’t accept ignorance as a defense.

While counterfeit luxury clothing and accessories may not seem particularly life-threatening for the buyer, it should also be remembered that knock-offs have never passed any government inspection and therefore can be made of flammable material, have a choking-hazard or be made from substances outlawed in Canada for health and safety reasons.

Not Just Clothes

It’s not just apparel that gets the counterfeit treatment either. Consumers—and travellers in particular—should also be aware that popular electronic goods such as headphones and smartphones are very lucrative for the criminal element, and have been known to short-circuit and cause fires.

Even popular or expensive pharmaceuticals are regularly counterfeited, making those purchases even more dangerous.

Everyone likes a bargain and never more so than when we’re on vacation and have a bit of disposable cash in our pockets; but between health risks, arrest and fines, purchasing counterfeit goods, fakes and knock-offs can ultimately be very expensive.

So, if looking to bring home a few gifts or souvenirs for yourself or loved ones this holiday season, remember the old adage that if something looks too good to be true, it probably is.

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