The proliferation of counterfeit Vibram Five Fingers was first reported here on Birthday Shoes back in early April 2010. It's now about three months later, and though Vibram has and is taking public measures to combat the proliferation of these counterfeit toe shoes, it seems they are still as rampant as ever.
Amazingly, the list of fake Five Fingers online retail websites is now over 175 sites long!
What a mess —
The Google problem
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the proliferation of these fake sites is how widespread they have become in Google search results. Out of the top 10 Google search results for the search vibram five fingers, a whopping seven will send you to fake toe shoes retailers. By my last count, out of the top 50, 37 of the results were to fake retailers!
Just to visualize the problem, check this screen capture below (right click, open in new window to enlarge) displaying what you'd see on a search for Vibram Five Fingers:
Three things are worth noting here. The first is with regard to the aforementioned organic or natural results: once you get below the top two vibramfivefingers.com results, you'll find six fake retailers and one legit retailer (KayakShed). The second thing to note is that the fake retailers are trying to pay their way onto these search results using Google Adwords — see the "Sponsored Links" sections and though you'll find legit retailers, the fakes are there, too. Third, note the link on the leftmost column named "Fewer shopping sites." You can click this link to strip the organic search results of retailers and whittle the results down to relevant reviews, etc.
Vibram's response to the counterfeiters
If you've been to VibramFiveFingers.com lately, you may have noticed they've published an alert about the proliferation of counterfeits very publicly on the main page. They've even dedicated a section of the site to informing customers.
Here's a snippet from their public note on the counterfeit merchandise:
To All Consumers,
We want to inform you about our efforts to fight the sale of counterfeit merchandise, a serious menace that has recently surfaced after the success of our authentically unique Vibram FiveFingers®.
Fake merchandise and trademarks appear daily in the market, often sold from unauthorised or fraudulent Vibram or FiveFingers websites.
Purchasing only authentic Vibram FiveFingers® ensures that you avoid wasting your money on poor quality product, or worse, having your personal and financial information compromised. In addition, insisting on authentic Vibram FiveFingers supports fair labor and ethical business practices, responsibilities counterfeiters flagrantly ignore.
No doubt this will go a long way to helping alert buyers of Vibram Five Fingers to the problem, and hopefully, fewer people will be duped into buying knock-off toe shoes.
Vibram is also actively going after these fraudsters. In a section on the counterfeits titled We're Fighting Back Vibram writes, "We are working with the relevant authorities to shut down all fraudulent Web sellers of 'FiveFingers,' including Web sites, online auction sites, etc. We will continue to coordinate with Customs officials worldwide to stop the proliferation of these counterfeits and eradicate their distribution."
Just last week, SNEWS, an outdoor and fitness industry publication, published an article on Vibram's plight titled Vibram FiveFingers counterfeiters, fake websites popping up faster than in Whac-A-Mole (link - subscription required). The article speaks to the general problem, but also has information directly from Vibram USA CEO Tony Post. Here's a blurb:
For Vibram, it’s less about the cost (it adds up to about $3,000 each time the company has to take legal action to shut down a fake website, Post said) than about the potential damage to the brand and to the FiveFingers reputation. In addition, the company is afraid somebody will have a bad experience with a shoe that falls apart and will then tell dozens of friends who will tell dozens more.
“That’s more concerning than lost sales,” Post said about the bad word being spread. “If the consumer thought this was the FiveFingers product and it was a piece of crap, and they tell 20 people or more people and maybe blog about it too, it’s very harmful.”
Tony Post went on to say, “They’re like bunnies, the websites ... they multiply faster than you can catch them ... You shut down one counterfeit website, and it pops up again down the street."
Therein lies the big problem for Vibram: while it costs these fraudsters very little to set up a fake retail site, it costs Vibram $3,000 to go through the legal hoops to take the fake sites down! $3,000 times 175+ websites is a lot of money. Talk about a mess of a problem!
If you're looking to buy authentic Vibram Five Fingers from legit online retailers, what are your options?
The most surefire way to find an authentic retailer of Vibram Five Fingers is to buy local via finding a retailer on Vibram's store locator. That said, if your local retailer is low on stock, try consulting the Birthday Shoes list of online retailers of Vibram Five Fingers. Though the Birthday Shoes list of Vibram online retailers isn't all-inclusive, it includes most of the big names like City Sports, Travel Country, Kayak Shed, and REI (And you read and write customer feedback on these stores at each of their pages!).
And if no one has your size or model, you can subscribe by email to Birthday Shoes and get notified when big retailers get restocked.
If you're hell-bent on scouring the web for a legit retailer, be prepared to find a lot of fraudsters, which means you need to arm yourself with information so that you don't get duped. For that reason, here are some simple, bright-line rules to follow:
Don't buy on ebay.
Though there are legit ebay sellers of VFFs, they're only going to be individuals who are selling a one-off pair and not holding multiple auctions of VFFs! Vibram expressly forbids retailers from selling VFFs on ebay!
Don't buy from websites that have "five finger(s)," "vibram," "barefoot," "toe," "mbt" or any variation thereof in their domain names.
VibramFiveFingers.com (correctly spelled just like that) is legit. There are also a couple international sites that Vibram has that are also legit. These are exceptions! You should be immediately suspicious of any online retailer that is clearly set up to sell only Vibram Five Fingers online! Vibram does not allow anyone to sell FiveFingers if they do not have a brick and mortar presence! If you find an online retailer you're nervous about, look for and find the physical address of the retailer and use the aformentioned Vibram store locator to confirm their legitimacy!
Use your head!
For now, be immediately suspicious of any site that is plastered with legit images of Vibram Five Fingers*, logos, "authentic," etc. There are very few legit retailers who ship internationally, and very few who accept Paypal. Most of the fake online retailers do both! (Note there are legit exceptions here — for example, see Crossroads Online for a legit Vibram Five Fingers online retailer who ships internationally and accepts Paypal!)
* Just because a site uses stock imagery to list their fakes doesn't mean you'll receive stock-looking Vibram Five Fingers! Anyone can copy and republish images on the web! Remember, you are activtely being conned by these fraudsters, so if you order what appear to be KSO Treks from a fake retailer, prepare to be massively disappointed when you (if you) get them.
Why this matters!
Simply put: sellers of knock-off Five Fingers are actively trying to deceive people into buying counterfeit merchandise. These counterfeits not only aren't as good as the real deal (all quality control arguments considered), but they come with no warranty or recourse. If you knowingly support counterfeiters on the Internet, you may think "What's the harm? I know I'm buying fakes — it's my decision." And while you have the right to do what you want, just know that supporting these fraudsters enables them to sell to others who don't know they are buying fakes.
Getting off the soapbox.
What you can do? Encourage awareness!
You can spread the word about fakes by blogging about, linking to, Facebook sharing, or tweeting on this post!
Or link directly to my simple rules for avoiding counterfeit Five Fingers.