Brian Monks: Keeping Bogus Electronics Out of Consumers’ Hands

This engineer at Underwriters Labs is a counterfeiter’s worst nightmare

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Brian Monks, the vice president of anticounterfeiting operations for Underwriters Laboratories (UL), likes to tell a story about the man with seven suitcases. Arriving from Asia at San Francisco International Airport, the man was asked by customs officers if he had anything to declare. The man responded, “Nothing.” The agents searched his seven bags anyway—and found each one filled to the brim with counterfeit circuit breakers.

The haul was just a fraction of the more than 300,000 bogus circuit breakers that U.S. customs seized that year, Monks notes. “That’s 300,000 potential fires that didn’t happen,” he says, “300,000 disasters that could have destroyed people’s lives.”

Monks is generally an affable guy, poking light fun at himself in a gruff voice that bears traces of a British accent. But he approaches anticounterfeiting with severity and focus, operating his division at UL in Melville, N.Y., like a highly trained police unit. He and his team spend their days improving security on UL’s certification marks, conducting undercover surveillance, scouring intelligence reports, and coordinating with law enforcement on raids. His work and determination have made Monks an international leader in anticounterfeiting. But even after two decades, the mission is still the same: stopping the criminals.

“Counterfeiters are trying to cheat and deceive,” Monks says. “They only care about money, not our well-being, and it jeopardizes the safety of all of us.”

Even something as simple as an extension cord can be rendered dangerous by a counterfeiter. It has two main components—copper and plastic. “Copper is more expensive, so counterfeiters will put very little copper and a lot of plastic,” Monks explains. “It will look and feel like a real extension cord, but inside it’s actually more like a telephone wire.” The bogus cord may work for a while, but Monks says it’s “a hazard waiting to happen,” which could eventually result in electrical shock or fire.

UL’s main line of business is testing and certifying a vast range of products, including batteries, lighting, appliances, even missile launchers. Last year nearly 23 billion legitimate products carried the UL logo. But countless counterfeit products camouflaged with a phony UL designation also turned up on the market, and detecting and deterring the counterfeiters has become an increasingly important part of the company’s operations.

When Monks—who holds a B.S. in electrical and computer technology from New York Institute of Technology—first started working at UL in 1983, the company wasn’t really focused on counterfeiters. That all changed in the early 1990s, when U.S. customs agents at John F. Kennedy International Airport seized an overseas shipment of fake goods bearing false UL labels. Monks suggested that UL begin working with law enforcement, and UL’s anticounterfeiting division was born.

Monks soon became known for his fiery passion. “He was ahead of his time,” says Eamon O’Grady, a former Irish police officer who met Monks about a decade ago. “He didn’t have the team he has now, and yet he drove the mission for UL very well.” At Monks’s suggestion, O’Grady later joined UL and is now the company’s director of operations for global security and brand protection.

One of the chief ways that Monks and his team thwart the counterfeiters is by enhancing the security features on UL labels. “Anytime you add something new, it’s harder and more expensive for the counterfeiter to duplicate,” he explains. In recent years, the company has turned to holographic materials, sequential numbering, and covert security coding. More complex products get labels embedded with microchips.

“Our labels are technical marvels,” he says. “There is so much embedded information in them that a tech geek could spend a lot of time trying to figure all of it out.”

Even as the labels grow more sophisticated, they also need to be easy to authenticate. The company provides law enforcement and customs workers with LED authenticators to detect certain labels’ color-shifting ink, for instance. “With the tools we’re giving law enforcement, they can tell within seconds whether the UL label is real or not real,” Monks says.

He and his team also offer training on how to fight counterfeiting and intellectual-property crimes. Several years ago, Monks helped create the International IP Crime Investigators College, a joint initiative between Interpol, the international police organization, and UL that educates investigators on how to enforce intellectual-property laws and stem counterfeit manufacturing. “UL can’t do this work all by itself,” says Monks. “It’s a global problem.”

Companies that have been victims of counterfeiting seem to be waking up to that fact, Monks says. “Years ago, when a company was ripped off, it wouldn’t say anything and would try to work alone to fix the issue.” Now, he says, major corporations will admit they have a problem, and entire industries “are declaring that they won’t stand for it.”

Still, Monks says, it’s difficult to stay one step ahead of the counterfeiters. After all, there are many more of them than there are people like him. “It can be frustrating,” he says. “But that’s what drives me in this job and makes me want to come in every day and work harder to stop them.”

About the Author

Neel V. Patel (@n_vpatel) is an editorial fellow at Wired, managing editor of SciArt in America, and a former intern at IEEE Spectrum.

An abridged version of this article appeared in print as “The Counterfeiter’s Nightmare.”

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