Don’t Drink It! How to Avoid Fake Liquor Scams

It seems there's a flourishing trade in fake liquor, especially bourbons and vodkas.

Counterfeits are turning up in all types of places, including hotels, retail stores and even airport duty-free shops.

Some of this fake booze can be downright dangerous, containing methanol, instead of ethanol, and other harmful chemicals that can result in serious illness or even death.

Counterfeiters include:

* Sellers who put cheap, but drinkable, alcohol into expensive bottles and then reseal them before offering them online on sites like Craigslist and eBay.

In one recent incident a man was convicted after selling two bottles of fake, high-end Pappy Van Winkle bourbon for $1,500.

Empty Van Winkle bottles can be bought online for about $40. Crooks buy these and fill them up with cheap stuff because this product is in high demand among connoisseurs and collectors.

The distiller says it spends $500,000 a year trying to track down fakes.

* Bars and restaurants that either water down their liquors or, again, replace the contents of an expensive bottle with lower grade liquor.

This is a common occurrence in many overseas tourist locations, notably hotels and bars in China.

* Large-scale manufacturing of counterfeit liquor, usually by organized crime groups.

This involves distilling liquor, acquiring or making distinctive bottles associated with specific brands, printing convincing labels and professionally capping and sealing them.

Some of these may be just poor substitutes for the real thing but in other documented cases, the fake liquor has been found to include harmful chemicals and residues.

These products are then sold to disreputable wholesalers and can turn up in independent supermarkets and convenience stores. But they may even be peddled by door-to-door salespeople or offered in clubs and taverns to customers.


How to Spot Fake Liquors

Although it may be next to impossible to tell if you've been duped when buying a drink in a hotel or bar, especially if it's mixed with a soda, there are other steps you can take to limit the risk of being scammed.

First, buy your bottle from established, reputable sources.

Mark Brown, president and chief executive officer of Buffalo Trace, which makes Van Winkle bourbon, told the Kentucky State Journal newspaper: "Avoid buying any bourbon or whiskey, especially the highly sought-after ones, from anyone in the secondary market, which includes online private sellers or in these social media groups that claim to offer genuine products.

"The only legal and reputable source you should be buying from is a licensed retailer."

Second, a reasonable bargain price may be okay, but an outrageously low price signals trouble. Either the liquor is counterfeit or stolen.

Third, check the establishment you're buying from against a growing online database of outlets that have been reported as suspected of selling tainted or counterfeit liquor.

This database, accessible at https://www.safeproof.org/, is compiled by volunteers and we can't vouch for its accuracy, but it appears to be well supported.

You can also sign up for news alerts detailing recent alleged incidents.

Check the Bottle

Fourth, check the product.

If you buy a shot of liquor that doesn't look or smell right, you can complain and ask to see the bottle -- but you could be out on a limb with this. Just don't buy another!

But if you're considering buying one or more bottles, there could be some telltale signs that signal a fake.

For example:

* If the liquor looks dirty or contains a residue.

* Based on your knowledge and experience, see if the color looks right.

(Note that some duty-free stores actually have posters showing what the colors of a genuine product should be.)

* Misspellings on the label.

* Other label errors. Use your phone to scan the barcode and see what it tells you. That's the information that crooks often overlook.

The label or the seal should have one barcode that details the manufacturer, product number and packaging date.

This is called a GTIN label. Even if you don't have a barcode reader, you can check the details behind a number on the website of the global standards agency GS1, where you just key in the GTIN number.

See http://gepir.gs1.org/  (Note that, at the time of writing, this is not a secure web page so don't provide any personal information).

* Poor packaging that doesn't match the standards you'd expect of the brands.

* The bottle is the wrong size or shape.

* The cap is not properly sealed.

* There's a tiny, re-sealed/melted hole on the base of a plastic bottle. This indicates the contents have been removed and replaced via a hypodermic filler.

Finally, you may just be conned by a cheap substitute liquor, but if you feel nauseous, dizzy or drowsy after just one drink, you've likely consumed a manufactured fake liquor. Seek immediate medical help.