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As counterfeits rise, sneaker authenticators sniff out real from fake

Sept. 30, 2022 Updated Fri., Sept. 30, 2022 at 7:34 p.m.

Authenticators for eBay stand behind a booth Aug. 20 at SneakerCon in Washington, D.C.  (Washington Post)
Authenticators for eBay stand behind a booth Aug. 20 at SneakerCon in Washington, D.C. (Washington Post)
By Praveena Somasundaram Washington Post

Justin Mupas holds up two identical-looking pairs of the Nike “Chunky Dunkys,” a highly sought-after sneaker that can resell for more than $1,000.

“Do you think you can pick which one is real and which one is fake?” he said.

The real Chunky Dunky pair, a 2020 collaboration with ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s that originally sold for $100, features Nike’s signature swoosh in yellow and a cow skin pattern, an homage to the bovine face of the ice cream maker’s packaging.

But for Mupas, who examines hundreds of shoes each day as a trained sneaker authenticator for the online marketplace StockX, the smell is a giveaway: real Chunky Dunkys give off the scent of animal fur. The fakes smell like factory glue.

Sneakers have transcended the ranks of fashion and functionality, representing a $72 billion global market where collectors boast hundreds of pairs and new, limited edition drops sell off the shelves in minutes.

While the legitimate sneaker market in the U.S. is expected to grow nearly 8% per year through 2027, according to market researcher Statista, counterfeit producers are keeping pace, threatening its future.

The counterfeit sneaker market last year might have been worth $450 billion, more than five times the value of the legitimate market, according to a report from fitness trend reporter RunRepeat.

Resale companies including eBay, StockX and GOAT have turned to sneaker authenticators to protect their trade, promising patrons that sneakers resold on their sites are certified.

Footwear is one of the top counterfeited industries. Nearly $96.7 million of footwear was seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in 2021, up from $63.1 million in the previous year, CBP spokesperson Jeffrey Quiñones said in a statement.

Fake footwear trailed only handbags and clothes, according to 2021 Customs data, rising from the sixth most seized item just three years ago.

The concept of brand protection itself has been around “as long as there have been counterfeits” through logos, lettering and other physical elements, said Susan Scafidi, founder and director of the of the Fashion Law Institute.

While authentication videos have circulated around YouTube, TikTok and Instagram, some of the microscopic tells of authentic footwear are kept covert, hidden in the depths of companies’ authentication centers around the world. It’s the key to edging out competitors – and to combat counterfeits.

“That’s another reason why we don’t really tell people what every aspect of our test is,” said Garry Thaniel, eBay’s general manager of sneakers. “Just because people will plan for those things.”

For StockX’s human authenticators, the process involves more than 25 elements, starting with the shoe box. Even the box paper, which buyers tend to discard, can say something about the shoes inside, Mupas said.

“There’s some things that we can point out immediately that to a regular person that’s not an authenticator, they wouldn’t be able to see it,” Mupas said, adding that authenticators have to understand every brand and sneaker style available on the StockX platform.

For years, StockX was at the forefront of authentication, having certified all of its products since the company was founded in 2016. But in recent months, StockX has been embroiled in a lawsuit with Nike, which sued the online marketplace for allegedly selling counterfeit shoes.

StockX declined to comment on the lawsuit beyond its June statement that it “looks forward to defending its reputation and to understanding why Nike, which once sought to collaborate in combating counterfeits, now seeks to anticompetitively undermine StockX’s business model for making the secondary market safer and more efficient for consumers.”

EBay has also been fighting for dominance in the space, debuting its own Authenticity Guarantee (AG) program in October 2020. Last year, eBay became the official authentication service at SneakerCon, a traveling event where “sneakerheads” can buy, sell and trade.

Since its authentication program began, eBay has seen triple-digit growth in the gross merchandise value, or total sales, of sneakers on its platform.

At the August SneakerCon event in D.C., more than 1 million pairs of shoes filled the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, with many patrons following the signs to eBay’s authentication booth to get their shoes “legit checked.”

David Louie, a 37-year-old sneaker reseller, did just that.

“Some of these are big-ticket items, so I just wanted to make sure that they’re straight before I sell them,” Louie said, standing beside a stack of five Nike shoe boxes.

Four of Louie’s pairs passed eBay’s authentication process. One didn’t.

Authentic Jordan 4 Retro Union Guava Ice shoes can sell at retail prices from a few hundred dollars to $1,200. Louie’s pair that was deemed fake by the authenticator were consigned to him by a customer at his store, Footage Society, which he co-owns in Laurel, Md.

Suspicions arose because the material and stitching felt off, Louie said.

Buyers and sellers “chalk it up to a loss” when they have fakes, he said, adding that it happens often in the industry.

As long as demand for the real sneakers exists, Scafidi said, demand for fakes will as well – whether intentional or not.

Often, consumers consult resale websites like eBay and StockX hoping to find shoes they weren’t able to get when they were released by retailers. Others purchase replicas because they’re often cheaper than buying them from retailers or resellers.

“There will always be some customers that are fooled and are victims themselves, but there are some customers who are part of the problem,” she said. “So it’s a supply side problem and a demand side problem at the end of the day.”

At events like SneakerCon, people come to see shoes in-person and make deals directly with sellers.

On the first day of the event in D.C., Anastasia Lemley and Tia Hall, the owners of Seattle-based Sneak City who travel across the country for various SneakerCons, spent more than $50,000 on high-end, hard-to-find sneakers, including a pair of Nike Mags, which have a resale value of more than $20,000.

While some people have tried to get away with selling fakes, others genuinely don’t know how to tell the difference, especially those who are new to the resale market, Lemley said.

More newcomers have entered the field, she said: “The pandemic definitely blew up the sneaker market.”

Authentication is “a form of security” for the sneaker resale market – just as similar security and verification processes are for art, handbags, jewelry and technology, said Kevin Rivera, a designer and adjunct professor of footwear design at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

While human authenticators are a public face of the work, technology also plays a part.

Entrupy, a company that focuses on AI-based authentication, created an app that uses machine learning algorithms to verify items.

Last year, Nike partnered with CBP to give the agency technology for the authentication of its merchandise at certain facilities, though neither organization said what the tool was.

Thaniel, eBay’s general manager of sneakers, said while the company is driven by human inspections right now, he can also see a different, technology-guided future.

“We’re always looking to make the right investments in physical inspection as well as technology that support our AG program,” he said.

Raymond Nieves, an eBay authenticator, said real people would have to continue being involved in deciphering real versus fake shoes. With human senses – sight, smell, touch.

“A robot cannot do this,” he said.

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