The Influencers Getting Paid to Promote Designer Knockoffs From China

In December, Pandabuy announced on its official Discord server that more than 15,000 influencers joined its affiliate marketing program last year, thanking them for their “dedicated efforts” with two emojis of Pepe the Frog clutching a red heart. That’s a small number compared to Amazon’s roughly 900,000 affiliates, but trading in counterfeits is illegal.

If a person clicks an influencer’s affiliate link and buys the replica Rick Owens sneakers on Pandabuy, the company buys them through the original Taobao listing. Once Pandabuy receives the shoes at its warehouses in China, it takes photos and sends them to the customer so they can see what they’re getting. If they’re satisfied, Pandabuy forwards the counterfeits overseas to the buyer, and if they’re not, the order can be returned or exchanged. Shoppers can choose their preferred shipping carrier and even specify whether they want the packaging and “designer” tags to remain attached.

Influencers guide their followers through the entire process, including how to correctly declare packages to avoid them being seized by customs officials in the US or Europe. Many recommend telling Pandabuy to discard shoe boxes to reduce the weight of their orders and cut down on shipping costs. They even educate followers about upcoming holidays in China that may cause unexpected delays. “You have to remember, we’re going by Chinese standards,” one influencer says in a TikTok video. “We go by their calendar.”

Yaya, the customer service representative for Pandabuy, told WIRED that the company only serves as a middleman and isn’t responsible for what shoppers choose to buy from Chinese marketplaces. “The process is rather simple. We order what the customer required from the seller,” she says.

Counterfeit Couture

Shoppers who find using a shipping agent daunting can turn instead to DHgate, a 20-year-old ecommerce marketplace that is one of the most established purveyors of counterfeits from China. Unlike Taobao, it caters to international customers and can send orders directly to their doorsteps. Its name comes from the northwestern Chinese city of Dunhuang, once an important stop on the ancient Silk Road.

In 2020, DHgate launched an in-house affiliate marketing program, and more influencers on TikTok and Facebook soon began recommending products from the site, including counterfeit Golden Goose sneakers and knockoff jewelry from Van Cleef & Arpels. To prevent their videos and posts from being taken down, they often refer to it simply as “the little yellow app,” a reference to the color of the company’s logo. DHgate did not return requests for comment.

DHgate competes with smaller sites like DesignByRo, which recently ran a paid advertising campaign on TikTok just weeks after the video platform announced it was working with Europe’s largest luxury brand to crack down on counterfeits. “If you’re going to buy fake designer, at least get the realest looking fake designer,” said a voice in one ad while someone unboxed a fake version of a Goyard purse that retails for upwards of $1,500.

A woman in New York City named Cherrie, who asked to use only her first name for privacy reasons, said she bought several “replica” designer bags through an Instagram page. After she messaged the account, she was connected through WhatsApp to a dealer in Asia, who sent photos of the purses for inspection before they were forwarded to her in the US. “Eventually, the page got shut down, but then it would just pop back up,” Cherrie says.