Not worth its price

Next time you think of buying some brand name at a ridiculously low price - look closely. What you're scrutinizing may bear an expensive label, but it may be a fake, illegally made of inferior materials by a copycat manufacturer.

A new government report now enables Americans to see the extraordinary dimension of this international trafficking in fakes, and explains the risks to American consumers and companies.

The report, by the United States International Trade Commission, says US companies every year lose between $6 billion and $8 billion in sales to counterfeit products, which range from records to blue jeans to automobile parts. And, the report adds, the fakes have cost 131,000 American workers their jobs. Most of the fakes come from nations on the Pacific Basin, including Taiwan and South Korea.

For individual American consumers there's another problem: quality. It's usually significantly lower than for brand names, since the counterfeits are made to be sold cheaply. Sometimes this poorer quality can jeopardize safety, as in subpar automobile parts, or efficiency, as in pesticides that don't work.

By quantifying the dimension of the problem, the report makes clear the reason the United States seeks international agreements to make it easier to prosecute counterfeiters. A year ago a code to that end was considered but not adopted by the ministerial meeting of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Manufacturers of several Western nations are now trying to get their own governments to put it into practice anyway. If that were to happen, customs officers would have authority to prosecute manufacturers of any phony goods they found. Alternatively, customs officials could aid brand-name manufacturers in prosecuting the forgerers.

Meanwhile, ''caveat emptor'' is a phrase that has outlived its original language. Buyers nowadays who discover a deal that looks too good to be true may find it is.

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