It was the peeling hologram sticker in her new Fendi bag that made Chrys Reyna suspicious.
She wasn't able to afford the black leather bag's $1,100 retail price, so when she bought it on eBay for $415, she considered it a triumph in bargain shopping. It was only through a Web site designed to spot counterfeits that she realized she'd bought "a really high-quality five-star fake."
In an increasingly troubled economy, shoppers who used to be able to afford luxury goods are turning to third-party retailers that promise big discounts. But these amazing savings aren't always the real deal, and some consumers are using the Internet to police them.
Counterfeit products have cost the U.S. economy between $200 billion and $250 billion each year, according to recent estimates from the Department of Homeland Security's immigration and customs enforcement branch.
Major online auction sites such as eBay say they police their listings, but with millions of new auctions added each day, many buyers unknowingly spend hundreds on shoddy replicas.
"There's no way we can have an authentication service for every category," eBay spokeswoman Nichola Sharpe said.
That's where The Purse Forum, a popular online message board, wants to lend a hand. An offshoot of The Purse Blog, a handbag enthusiast site with the motto "Shallow Obsessing Strongly Encouraged," the board encourages buyers to post photos of purchases they'd like to make.
"We realized early on that there was a lot of counterfeiting going around the eBay marketplace" and other online merchants, said Vlad Dusil, the blog's 28-year-old co-founder. His site lets shoppers post the photos for critiques by other Forum members who may be more knowledgeable about a specific bag.
It was through The Purse Forum that Reyna found the truth about her Fendi bag. She reported the fraud to eBay after she and her fake Fendi seller were unable to settle independently, but the auction site was unable to recover Reyna's money. EBay has refused to comment on Reyna's claim, citing privacy agreements.
Reyna now suspects that her other eBay-purchased designer bags are also knockoffs. Altogether, she has spent $1,000.
"In a way, they're the experts of those bags," she said, describing the members of the discussion board as "a community that just really loves bags."
How to spot a fakeBecoming a bag connoisseur takes work, and in some cases, a lot of cash. Rebecca Vanard, 22, is one of seven unpaid moderators for the Louis Vuitton discussions. She uses her own collection of 52 Louis Vuitton bags as references. Vanard began studying the brand's bags in late 2004, when she noticed an increasing presence of the brand's Multicolore bags.
"I wondered, 'How come so many people had them when they were such expensive bags?'" she said.
Louis Vuitton bags are the most researched items on the forum, according to Dusil, who said he created the forum as a favor to his bag-loving fiancee and co-founder, Meaghan Mahoney.
The Vuitton discussion thread has been viewed nearly 1 million times, with 70,000 messages posted. Vanard, a psychology student, sees her posts there as a public service.
"I feel that it's like a little community where we can all help each other out," she said. Moderators answer within minutes of most queries and often defer to others for second and third opinions. Any member is allowed to authenticate, but "if you're wrong on items, people will correct you," Vanard said.
Juan Mata, 21, a grocery store department manager, spends up to three hours each day helping to confirm authenticity for other members, but said sellers have other ways to sell their fakes.
"Many fall victims of the bait-and-switch scam, where the seller posts pictures of a real bag in the auction, then sends them a fake bag instead," explained Mata.
EBay said it removed 2.2 million listings of counterfeit items and suspended about 50,000 members in 2007 through its VeRO program, which reports listings of potential knockoffs to their respective designers.
Constance White, eBay's style director, recommends researching items, checking sellers' ratings before placing a bid, and asking sellers lots of questions.
"The best sellers are totally transparent," White said. "If they're unwilling to answer questions, it's a red flag."
Although she's confident in the collective expertise of The Purse Forum, Reyna doesn't buy her designer bags on auction sites anymore.
"I go to reputable retailers, like eLuxury, or the boutique itself," she said. "You know, that way I know it's real."