Counterfeit wireless earbuds are being seized in record numbers at US border

The number of counterfeit wireless earbuds seized by US border customs in 2021 has already surpassed last year’s total, according to a report from The Information. It’s a sign of how eager the makers of these knockoffs are to keep riding the sustained popularity of earbuds like Apple’s AirPods and those from Samsung, Jabra, Bose, Sony, and other companies.

According to the report, “roughly 360,000 counterfeit wireless headphones” — valued at $62.2 million — were nabbed in the first nine months of fiscal 2021. That’s well above the 295,000 pairs that were confiscated during the whole of fiscal 2020. Just yesterday, US Customs and Border Protection announced a major confiscation in Cincinnati.

Around 80 percent of fakes entering the US come from China, and their manufacturers see a huge opportunity: Strategy Analytics forecasted worldwide sales of Bluetooth headsets to be more than 300 million in 2020, and the true wireless earbuds market surged by 90 percent. Apple still holds a commanding lead in market share, though a crowded field has cut into that dominance. Research firm Canalys estimates that Apple took in at least $16 billion from AirPods sales last year, according to The Information report. The introduction of the AirPods Pro in 2019 gave scammers a chance to try and wring even more money out of unknowing buyers.

A confiscated shipment of AirPods counterfeits.
Image: US Customs and Border Protection

OnePlus had to deal with an awkward controversy last September when US Customs and Border Protection seized a shipment of the company’s earbuds and described them as counterfeit AirPods. There are design differences between the two, but the blatant AirPod clones are getting closer and closer to the real thing.

Some counterfeit earbuds are suspected to have been created “with genuine molds stolen from factories that work with Apple.” Others can mimic the AirPods pairing process on an iPhone and display a proper Apple serial number. But even in these situations, there are still subtle tells (like a bogus firmware version) that reveal a product as a fraud.

Highlighting the potential safety risks, Apple says it has a global effort in place to tackle the issue of knockoffs, and it’s working with law enforcement and e-commerce sites to prevent customers from being duped wherever possible.

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