Fast Facts

From travel mugs to cosmetics, counterfeit goods harm the U.S. economy and can pose a threat to consumers.

These products can be hard to spot and may be offered online next to authentic goods. For example, manufacturers determined 20 of 47 items we purchased from third-party sellers on popular sites were counterfeit.

Customs and Border Protection leads efforts to stop imported counterfeit goods at the border, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducts investigations.

We recommended that CBP improve evaluations of the effectiveness of its efforts and assess opportunities to enhance information sharing with the private sector.

Examples of counterfeit products purchased online

Three counterfeit products: a travel mug, a phone charger, and eyeshadow primer.

Three counterfeit products: a travel mug, a phone charger, and eyeshadow primer.

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What GAO Found

Changes in the market for counterfeit goods entering the United States pose new challenges for consumers, the private sector, and U.S. agencies that enforce intellectual property rights (IPR). Specifically, growth in e-commerce has contributed to a shift in the sale of counterfeit goods in the United States, with consumers increasingly purchasing goods online and counterfeiters producing a wider variety of goods that may be sold on websites alongside authentic products. For example, 20 of 47 items GAO purchased from third-party sellers on popular consumer websites were counterfeit, according to testing by the products' rights holders (see table), highlighting potential risks to consumers. The changes in the market for counterfeit goods can also pose challenges to the private sector—for example, the challenge of distinguishing counterfeit from authentic goods listed for sale online—and complicate the enforcement efforts of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Results from GAO's Purchases of Four Frequently Counterfeited Consumer Products



Travel mugs


Phone chargers




















Source: GAO | GAO-18-216

CBP and ICE engage in a number of activities to enhance IPR enforcement; however, while ICE has assessed some of its efforts, CBP has taken limited steps to do so. CBP's and ICE's IPR enforcement activities broadly include detecting imports of potentially IPR-infringing goods, conducting special operations at U.S. ports, engaging with international partners, and undertaking localized pilot programs or port-led initiatives. CBP and ICE have collected some performance data for each of the eight activities GAO reviewed, and ICE has taken some steps to understand the impact of its efforts. However, CBP has conducted limited evaluation of its efforts to enhance IPR enforcement. Consequently, CBP may lack information needed to ensure it is investing its resources in the most efficient and effective activities.

CBP and ICE generally collaborate on IPR enforcement, but according to private sector representatives, restrictions on CBP's information sharing limit private sector enforcement efforts. GAO found that CBP and ICE have undertaken efforts that align with selected key practices for interagency collaboration, such as participating in developing a national IPR enforcement strategy and agreeing on roles and responsibilities. However, sharing additional information about seized items with rights-holding companies and e-commerce websites could improve enforcement, according to private sector representatives. CBP officials said they share information to the extent allowed under current regulations, but CBP has not completed an assessment of what, if any, additional information would be beneficial to share with private sector entities. Without such an assessment, CBP will not know if sharing additional information requires regulatory or legal changes.

Why GAO Did This Study

Infringement of IPR through the illegal importation and distribution of counterfeit goods harms the U.S. economy and can threaten the health and safety of U.S. consumers. CBP leads IPR enforcement at U.S. ports of entry by detecting and seizing counterfeit goods that enter the United States. CBP works with ICE, which investigates IPR violations and builds cases for prosecution.

GAO was asked to review CBP's and ICE's IPR enforcement at U.S. borders. In this report, GAO examines (1) what is known about counterfeit goods entering the United States and the challenges they present, (2) efforts CBP and ICE have undertaken to enhance IPR enforcement and the extent to which they have assessed the results, and (3) the extent of CBP's and ICE's collaboration on IPR enforcement and ways they coordinate with the private sector. GAO reviewed agency data and documents, interviewed agency officials, and conducted field work at port locations selected on the basis of factors such as the volume of IPR seizures and variety of modes of transportation at each location. GAO also conducted undercover purchases of commonly counterfeited consumer goods on popular consumer websites, using investigative tools and techniques.

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GAO is making two recommendations to CBP, recommending that it (1) evaluate its efforts to enhance IPR enforcement and (2) assess potential additional information sharing with the private sector. CBP agreed with these recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
United States Customs and Border Protection The Commissioner of CBP should take steps to evaluate the effectiveness of CBP's IPR enforcement efforts, such as by improving its metrics to track the overall effectiveness of its IPR enforcement efforts, evaluating selected activities to enhance IPR enforcement, and developing a process to assess and share information on port-led initiatives to enhance IPR enforcement (Recommendation 1)
CBP concurred with this recommendation. In September 2018, CBP stated that it had established an IPR working group that meets every 4-6 weeks to implement its Fiscal Year 2018 IPR Strategic Plan and develop priorities and metrics. CBP stated that, in these meetings, headquarters and field personnel share information on the results and effectiveness of local and national port initiatives and develop policies for improving IPR enforcement. Additionally, CBP provided evidence that it has begun efforts to improve its tracking of metrics and evaluation of selected activities to enhance IPR enforcement. For example, CBP provided data for 5 of the 16 measurement indicators included in its IPR Strategic Plan. Additionally, the IPR Strategic Plan includes at least 5 action items to assess or evaluate aspects of CBP's IPR enforcement. In September 2021, CBP stated that it was working on a dashboard to allow for better management and tracking of data. We will continue to follow up on these efforts.
United States Customs and Border Protection The Commissioner of CBP, in consultation with ICE, should assess what, if any, additional information would be beneficial to share with the private sector and, as appropriate, take action to enhance information sharing, where possible, such as by proposing regulatory revisions or requesting additional legal authorities from Congress. (Recommendation 2)
CBP concurred with this recommendation. CBP stated that, in May 2018, it briefed the Senate Finance Committee on six policy goals to improve IPR, import safety, and e-commerce enforcement that require additional legislative authority to implement. In December 2018, CBP stated that it had identified the need to establish an information sharing structure for e-commerce as a first step in implementing its E-Commerce Strategy. CBP officials stated that they would work with offices throughout CBP and with key stakeholders in the trade community and the Commercial Customs Advisory Committee (COAC) to build an information sharing structure and identify the necessary statutory and regulatory changes to implement it. CBP said that, when statutory changes have been identified, it will work through the interagency process to make any necessary Congressional recommendations. In January 2020, the Department of Homeland Security published a report that identified actions to combat trafficking of counterfeit and pirated goods in conjunction with the private sector. These actions included steps to share additional information with the private sector. For example, the report said that when CBP identifies suspected counterfeit merchandise that is destined for a U.S. fulfillment center or warehouse, it will notify the e-commerce platform or other third-party intermediary operating the facility. This will allow the operator of the fulfillment center or warehouse to remove or destroy any identical items from the same seller in coordination with rights holders. The report also recommends the formation of the Anti-Counterfeiting Consortium to Identify Online Nefarious Actors and a framework for sharing information with sellers, shippers, and other third-party intermediaries. If implemented, these steps could help to enhance information sharing with the private sector. In September 2021, CBP officials stated that they were working on a request for additional legislative authorities. GAO will continue to monitor the implementation of these actions.

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