Counterfeit watches clocking up sales online

Counterfeit watches clocking up sales online

The watches are advertised as "boutique grade" - fakes which are of such high quality, even dealers have trouble telling them apart from the real thing.

The replicas of luxury timepieces from the likes of Audemars Piguet, Panerai and Rolex come in official-looking boxes, complete with warranty cards and papers.

And there is a booming trade in them online.

The Sunday Times has found at least four Facebook pages through which these counterfeits are being sold for between $500 and $1,500, depending on the model.

One such page, which has more than 23,000 likes, claims to have been in business for five years.

Interested buyers SMS or send a WhatsApp message to a mobile phone number included on the page to set up a deal. When this reporter posed as a prospective buyer looking for a Panerai 441 watch, which retails for more than $16,000, he was quoted $1,050.

The seller even promised a "lifetime mechanism warranty" for what was labelled a "1:1 replica".

He said: "You can enter Panerai boutique without them knowing it is (a) replica." He added that the watches were sourced from a factory in China, and claimed to be the "direct distributor" of its wares.

After payment is made via bank transfer, watches would be shipped direct from the factory to customers. There would be no need for a face-to-face meeting between the customer and him, he added. And if the watch breaks down, he has "lots of watch repair contacts".

These illegal sellers appear to be doing a thriving business. The Facebook pages are filled with reviews and pictures from customers who say the watches are "worth the price" and "look damn good".

Watch dealers here say such high quality replicas started appearing about one to two years ago.

Mr William Leong, vice-president of the Singapore Clock and Watch Trade Association, said this was when counterfeit factories started using the same machinery used by established watch-makers.

A separate website that sourced such fakes from a Chinese factory claims that "original watches were fully dissected and used as samples for replication". According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the counterfeit goods business is worth over US$250 billion (S$342 billion). About a tenth of fake goods seized are watches and jewellery.

Mr Alfred Png, who runs Png Watch Dealer, said while replicas have tell-tale signs that set them apart from genuine ones, these often boil down to tiny details - for instance the lustre on a screw, or slight difference in the dial colour.

A similar point was made by Mr Leong, who said the material used to make the fakes is inferior. Mr Png, who has been in the business for 38 years, said: "The finishing is generally a little bit more coarse, or the leather will be a little rough."

But sometimes it is hard to tell.

Mr Png said he knew a dealer who bought a watch supposedly from a Swiss manufacturer but which turned out to be a counterfeit. "It looked so real, only when he opened the case and looked at the engine, did he know it was a fake."

It is a crime to sell counterfeit goods. Anyone found guilty of doing so may be fined up to $100,000, jailed for up to five years, or both.

And it is not just sellers who could be guilty. Criminal lawyer Josephus Tan said: "Buying a fake item and using it is itself an infringement."

He spent $2,000 on 7 replicas

Peter wears a different watch every day. The bank executive makes about $2,500 a month, but owns three Panerais, three Rolexes, and an Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore Safari - his favourite.

A genuine version of this ivory-coloured timepiece would cost $34,000, but Peter, who did not want to be identified by his full name, bought his replica online for only $500. "Depending on what I wear, I choose a watch to fit," said the 27-year-old.

He has spent about $2,000 on his seven fakes, which he has been buying since the start of this year. The genuine versions would have cost him about $123,000. He is part of the growing market here driving demand for counterfeit timepieces.

"I'm a watch lover, but it's just not financially feasible to buy genuine watches unless you are super rich," he said.

"You can buy one genuine (Audemars Piguet), but if you like another few more colours, how can you buy another, or two more? You can buy a car with that money."

He believes that most people who bought replicas generally also owned genuine watches. He said he had two authentic Rolexes of his own. And he also does not hide the fact that some of his watches are fakes. "If anyone asks, I'll tell them my watches are replicas," he said.

But not all buyers of counterfeits are like him.

Some second-hand watch dealers here say that each month, they encounter between one and five customers who try and pass off counterfeit watches as the real deal.

"Usually they start off by telling you their watch was a gift from their father or grandfather. And that's when alarm bells will start ringing," said Mr Alvin Lye, who runs watch dealer Monster Time.

He added that in some cases, sellers might get the watch as a gift, thinking it is the real thing, only to find out it was a cheap fake when they try and sell it. To protect themselves, dealers here are taking no chances.

"Nowadays, if the watch doesn't come with a box or guarantee card, I'm more wary," said Mr Alfred Png of Png Watch Dealer.

But even that was no guarantee - some fake watches these days also come with boxes and guarantee cards, he added.

The Singapore Clock and Watch Trade Association (SCWTA) said that since watches started getting sold online, it has been increasingly difficult to police the situation.

"Some of these sellers are not selling cheap, too, it's a form of cheating. (Sometimes) buyers also unknowingly buy counterfeits," said Mr William Leong, SCWTA's vice-president.

He added that previously, buyers had to travel outside of Singapore to get good-quality counterfeits, but the Internet has made the situation a "free-for-all".

This article was first published on July 19, 2015.
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