Grand Rapids, MI (InvestigateTV) - As a long-time Michigander, Ken Gauld knows all too well how important it is to have clean drinking water.
He lives just 90 minutes from Flint, where lead leached into the water. He’s also just 20 minutes from Rockford, a town that’s water supply has been tainted by chemicals from an old shoe factory.
He relies on water filters to protect himself, his wife and their two young children. And when he needed to replace worn-out filters, he, like uncounted others, turned to the internet.
Gauld did his research before he bought. He works in IT as a sales engineer, so he is familiar with online traps: “I think that I’m fairly savvy in being able to sniff out if it’s a spammy email or something like that.”
That’s why he was so frustrated when his new filters arrived and seemed suspicious. He thought they were perhaps counterfeit. He took his concerns to industry experts and InvestigateTV to confirm his suspicions.
For weeks, InvestigateTV worked clues to confirm the authenticity of the box of water filters Gauld bought earlier this year. Digging turned up more and more red flags: non-existent addresses, multiple company names and disconnected phone lines.
It turns out the filters Gauld said he bought from the company SupDrop are as fake as the addresses used on the shipping labels and websites. They are counterfeits, according to the manufacturer of the authentic product: Whirlpool.
Counterfeit water filters are a growing problem, according to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, which represents makers of products from refrigerators to ranges and runs a consumer education campaign about counterfeit filters called Filter It Out.
“We can’t estimate the entire size of the problem, but we know that it’s in the millions," said Jill Notini, a spokeswoman for the association that is commonly known as AHAM. "Millions of counterfeit filters are coming across our border and flooding the online marketplace.”
But unlike counterfeit DVDs or knock-off handbags that pop up on street corners and cheesy websites, fake filters can make people sick. They can leach hazardous materials into your water, according to a study commissioned by AHAM.
“We found in our study that the counterfeits are actually putting cancer-causing chemicals into clean water,” Notini said.
And, InvestigateTV found it’s extraordinarily difficult to tell a fake filter from a real one, online or in person.
When Gauld’s refrigerator needed a new filter in March, he knew he needed a particular model. But there were a lot of choices online.
He found SupDrop’s website. It had a lot of information about the company’s products – the types of filters it carried and the contaminants they would reduce.
The website seemed legitimate to him. Gauld said he saw “images with children drinking the water. There’s different descriptions of different certifications that they had.”
Gauld decided to buy the filters and quickly started seeing what he considered oddities: He said there were different addresses on his package tracking records.
When the filters arrived, he found a bigger concern. Rather than saying “SupDrop” on the packaging as pictured on the website, the filters and boxes said “EveryDrop.”
“Things just didn’t quite check out in my mind,” Gauld said. “Then with the kids and consideration of the family drinking it and myself, [I] just decided… there’s too many strange things about it that it didn’t seem worth continuing to use them.”
When he suspected the filters were counterfeit, he pulled the replacement he’d installed.
SupDrop’s website looks nearly identical to a website for “EveryDrop,” the brand name of filters manufactured by Whirlpool. The sites use similar language to describe the products, the page layouts are the same, and there are similar graphics.
In person, the differences between Gauld’s filters and genuine EveryDrop filters are nearly imperceptible. Both have black and purple boxes with white and purple filters inside. The logos both have a blue water droplet and read “EveryDrop.” Both have certification seals and small print detailing specifications.
“The packaging looked pretty legitimate to me. It’s got all the verbiage, the stamp of approval from the testing organizations that … you’d expect to see on it,” Gauld said.
InvestigateTV carefully compared the filters Gauld received with genuine EveryDrop filters.
The SupDrop-shipped filters look different from those Whirlpool currently sells on its own website. But Gauld’s filters do like those sold by Whirlpool a few years ago, according to InvestigateTV’s review of older images using the Internet Archive.
“It is unbelievable how difficult it is to detect a true counterfeit filter. They look nearly identical,” Notini said.
InvestigateTV sent detailed photos of Gauld’s filters to Whirlpool, which ultimately confirmed that the filters he received are counterfeit. The company would not disclose the differences it spotted because of concern it would tip off companies making counterfeits.
Whirlpool said in an email that counterfeit filters may not work and “do not go through Whirlpool’s quality control processes to ensure proper fit and operation.”
The company said counterfeits can cause harm: “An improperly fitted filter can result in damage to the refrigerator and, in the event of a water leak, the consumers’ home.”
Once Whirlpool confirmed the filters were counterfeit, InvestigateTV followed the mystery from Michigan to New York City trying to track down SupDrop and get answers.
The return address on Gauld’s package showed a location on “63th Street” in Brooklyn instead of the grammatically correct “63rd.” He checked for the latter street online. That particular block where the box allegedly came from is a residential area filled with tightly-packed houses.
“It’s not some business you’d expect would be sending water filters. In fact, it doesn’t look like a business at all,” Gauld said.
InvestigateTV visited 63rd Street in Brooklyn to look for the number on the shipping label. Google mapping shows that the location should be between a home with peeling white paint and rusting handrails and a home with worn red brick and a red awning. But there was nothing.
SupDrop lists itself at different addresses in different places. The Google map shown on the site uses the address for the Park Central Hotel near Carnegie Hall in Manhattan.
New York state records show no business licenses for a company called “SupDrop.”
InvestigateTV ordered water filters from the SupDrop website.
The SupDrop order raised more questions. The PayPal receipt listed the company as “Sardrop.” The transaction listed in our bank account showed the company as “Filtersdrop.”
There is a website for Sardrop, which is nearly identical to SupDrop’s site. The contact details and other language, such as the company’s mission statement, match exactly.
The companies’ phone number has an upstate New York area code. When InvestigateTV called the number, a recorded message simply said, “Call rejected.”
Emails and live chats through SupDrop’s website went unanswered, and InvestigateTV never received the filters ordered in mid-September.
Filtersdrop did not return phone messages, and emails to the company were returned undeliverable. The address on its website leads to a group of buildings filled with restaurants and apartments just two blocks from the New York Stock Exchange.
Gauld’s suspicions also led him to report the company to NSF International, the Ann Arbor-based nonprofit organization that sets safety standards for the water filtration industry. He wondered if the company truly had the organization’s certification.
NSF emailed Gauld stating his complaint was “valid.” The company was improperly using certification marks and is now on a list for unauthorized use of the NSF mark.
Unauthorized use of certification labels is quite common, InvestigateTV reported in July. In that report, InvestigateTV identified filter companies that NSF found in violation still marketing their products as NSF-certified.
AHAM said legitimate manufacturers spend money and time to gain certification, and they spend years building consumer trust and brand recognition.
Notini said counterfeiters are committing a crime.
“The counterfeiters are stealing the brand identity, the logos and even the certification marks that the real companies are paying thousands and thousands of dollars to attain,” Notini said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection has seized thousands of fake filters in recent years, and AHAM said current projections estimate even more being caught at the border this year.
At the end of September, CBP Los Angeles announced it had seized 5,200 fake filters. The shipment was coming from China and headed to Washington. The agency said the filters were copies of filters from Brita, GE, Frigidaire, and PUR. Some also had NSF logos.
AHAM said most counterfeit filters are coming into the United States in bulk shipments from China. Recently, however, counterfeiters have been selling directly to consumers through the mail, which is more difficult for CBP to intercept.
Beyond intellectual property theft, Notini said the fact that counterfeits could contaminate water is even more concerning.
Last year, AHAM paid for a study on counterfeit filters. The association bought 100 water filters from known counterfeiters and sent them to three well-known and accredited laboratories for testing.
The results of several different tests showed the counterfeit filters did not work as well as brand-name. For example, the knock-off filters failed to meet lead removal requirements, Notini said.
Worse, she said some filters deposited chemicals into clean water. Specifically, ten known cancer-causing chemicals, including arsenic and ethanol, were added to water after going through counterfeit filters – and the chemicals exceeded the EPA’s allowable limits.
“They are not made with the same materials. They are using subpar plastics that are actually allowing toxic chemicals to leach into the clean water, which is very scary,” Notini said.
Neither AHAM nor NSF tested Gauld’s SupDrop filters.
Counterfeiters have learned how to avoid consumers’ skepticism. Notini said these online sellers know people will watch for brand names, certifications and even price.
For example, Gauld’s were a good deal, but they weren’t wildly cheap either. Gauld bought a four-pack from SupDrop for around $100. One filter from the genuine EveryDrop website costs around $50.
Notini said the association is seeing more instances of counterfeit filters being priced just under or even right at original manufacturers’ prices.
“They do this to dupe you. Sometimes they will make the products look even nicer. We’ve seen that in the product packaging, with shiny product packaging or a little something extra done to make the product look a little better,” she said.
Even buying through well-known stores online can be risky. Many large retailers are now offering third-party sellers to run sales through their sites, which could lead them to unknowingly sell counterfeit products.
For example, InvestigateTV found water filters advertised on the website of a national legacy retailer that are coming from a vendor with a business address registered at a Virginia apartment building.
Another consumer from Canada, Brent George, told InvestigateTV about a package of water filters he bought through a third-party vendor on Amazon.
His filters were also advertised as EveryDrop brand; however, he thought the packages and filters looked inauthentic. George, who directs video game animations for a living and considers himself very detail-oriented, said he noticed little things that were different from filters he’d previously bought from the store.
“My eye caught some little details on them that felt a little off. Like it felt like some of the finish on the plastic parts were kind of rough… the molding was just not as clean as I remembered it,” George said.
He also noticed the filters were missing stickers he’d seen on his previous filters. He said Whirlpool confirmed his particular model should have holographic stickers.
George contacted both the seller and Amazon and ultimately returned the filters for a refund. An Amazon spokesperson said customers are protected through its “A-to-Z guarantee,” which allows consumers to contact customer service for a full refund if a product never arrives or isn’t as advertised.
George provided all of his correspondence with the Amazon and the vendor to InvestigateTV.
In an email the vendor wrote, “It looks like we will need to open all of our packages from our suppliers for our water filters because of this incident. We hope that things will be rectified with this sooner than later.”
The vendor responded to InvestigateTV and said he never heard from the store from which he was buying the filters he was distributing and said he learned a lesson to check sources more carefully.
Amazon said it prohibits the sale of counterfeits and has invested in technology to prevent it from happening. A spokesperson listed several ways authentic brands can work with the site to get rid of counterfeit products. For example, it has launched a new program that allows brands to instantly remove counterfeit listings. Consumers can also report suspected counterfeit products.
“We investigate any claim of counterfeit thoroughly, including removing the item, permanently removing the bad actor, pursuing legal action or working with law enforcement as appropriate,” an Amazon spokesperson wrote in an email to InvestigateTV.
George also reached out to AHAM and wanted to warn others about potentially counterfeit filters, a problem he described as a “big issue.”
“We’re all going to drink water that’s going through this filter,” George said. “I want to at least have peace of mind that it’s safe. We put a lot of trust in the people who manufacture these things, and we’re literally going to be drinking it.”
As the issue of counterfeit filters becomes more prevalent, Whirlpool recommends that people only buy directly from the manufacturer.
AHAM also advises people to buy directly from manufacturers or known distributors when possible. Many company websites also have information about local stores where you can buy authentic filters.
On its website, AHAM offers a guide to locate some of the major manufacturers’ genuine websites.
Moving forward, Gauld said he plans to order directly from Whirlpool.
“You start hearing the stories … is it actually even contaminating the water instead of filtering it? And it just seemed like it wasn’t worth using these questionable filters anymore,” Gauld said.
Gauld was able to get a refund through PayPal after he said SupDrop failed to respond to his and PayPal’s requests for information.
“I was somewhat annoyed with myself that… I ended up spending my money on these that more likely than not were illegitimate or counterfeit filters,” Gauld said.