Fans of Korean beauty often want to know how to make sure that the stuff they’re buying is authentic, as in, actually made by the company that…you know, makes it.
The best way to do that, of course, is to buy from trusted sellers. I have a list of Korea-based shops I like, but sometimes it’s not possible to shop with them and sometimes you happen to get a sheet mask or product and you don’t know its provenance.
So how do you know that your Korean beauty products are authentic?
There’s an app for that.
How I found out about Korean beauty authentication apps
A company called Hiddentag contacted me earlier this month. They wondered if I might be willing to write a paid post about their counterfeit-detection technology on fan-b. I let them know that I don’t publish sponsored posts and moved along.
What they do seemed interesting, but I was reluctant to write about it for a few reasons. One, I didn’t think that many counterfeit goods were circulating in the US, especially not from trusted sellers. Two, I didn’t want ten bloggers to end up writing paid posts about the technology and then deal with readers wondering if I’d taken the money, too, and just failed to disclose it.
A few days later, I was talking to @doglovesasianbeauty on Instagram and they wondered if they had a counterfeit mask in their collection. I remembered that certain stickers on some Korean beauty products actually contain hidden information that can be read by an app, which can authenticate the products. @doglovesasianbeauty was unable to authenticate their products because the stickers were from an earlier era, but I realized that I could probably make a fairly low-key video for Instagram that would show how to use the apps.
I pulled out my camera, fired up the lights, and began scanning masks from my recent NYC kbeauty haul using my phone. I anticipated that the video would just show a cool tool since I only shop at trusted retailers, but as I filmed, one of my masks was identified as counterfeit. This is the actual moment I realized that something wasn’t right, uncut aside from me removing the Biggie Smalls track that was playing in the background (since YT would block my video on copyright grounds if I kept the song in).
How I prepared to write this post
When talking about counterfeit goods — especially from Asia — a lot of people jump to conclusions without doing the homework and providing #receipts. Here’s what I did before writing this post:
- I wrote back to Hiddentag to ask them a ton of questions about their technology.
- Outcome: I got a lot of answers.
- I purchased $100 in masks on Amazon from the same brand as my counterfeit mask, labeled them, and scanned them to see if there were any counterfeit masks in the bunch. I decided to look into masks on Amazon because reviews there indicated that some customers believed they had received counterfeit masks.
- Outcome: all masks with stickers were recognized as authentic by the apps. Two boxes without stickers (manufactured before the introduction of stickers) could not be authenticated by the app since there’s nothing to autheticate and attempts to get them hand-authenticated in Korea have come to naught.
- I filed a counterfeit report with the verification app and worked several nights to talk with the brand’s representative on Line (messenger app) about the mask in question. I asked if the company would allow me to send two boxes of masks manufactured before the introduction of the stickers to them in Korea so they might hand-authenticate them.
- Outcome: counterfeit report filed. No promises regarding hand verification of the two unstickered boxes; it’s been one week since I’ve heard from them.
- I contacted fellow fans of Korean beauty via DM to ask if they could scan their masks to make sure they’re authentic.
- Outcome: everyone has authentic goods.
- I contacted the store from which I bought the counterfeit mask and asked (nicely!) for a statement for this post/an article I was writing so they would have the opportunity to explain the mask, look into the problem, and defend their business.
- Outcome: they wrote back a very nice response.
It was only when I had crossed off all the things on my to-do list that I sat down to write this post. I’m not particularly happy to be writing this, but I do feel responsibility to share what I know. Hopefully the technology will end up putting a lot of fears to rest and allow fans of Korean beauty to buy products more confidently.
About my counterfeit mask
Earlier this month, I went on a shopping tour of all the Korean beauty shops in Manhattan, in part to update my NYC shopping map. Along the way, I visited a very popular NYC boutique called oo35mm. There, I bought a number of masks including three Papa Recipe masks. While scanning the masks several days later at home to show how to authenticate Korean beauty products with verification stickers, one of the masks was identified by the app as counterfeit.
To be clear: I’ve never seen oo35mm connected to counterfeit goods. In fact, the shop displays a sign showing that they’re a verified distributor of Cure skincare products and had a shipment of the upcoming Cosrx PHA cream samples in stock when I visited (suggesting a close relationship with the brand). When I asked oo35mm about the mask, they wrote “We did have a few boxes of the older version of the Honey Bombee Mask (Original and Whitening version) that could have possibly triggered the mistake.” oo35mm’s representative also wrote, “I was able to verify [that] all of the masks we have on hand are genuine.”
Some companies set up their verification apps so that stickers scanned more than x number of times (usually 10) come back as possibly counterfeit. My concern was that the sticker on my possibly counterfeit Papa Recipe mask had just been scanned too many times by anxious distributors and store owners. As a result, in addition to using the app scan the sticker, I looked closely at the packaging and sticker itself. The sticker on the mask identified as counterfeit lacks the hologram effect that every other Papa Recipe mask in my $100 collection has when viewed at an angle.
Papa Recipe mask counterfeiting has been in the news in Korea. In May 2016, a news report discussed the counterfeiting of Papa Recipe sheet masks and TonyMoly banana hand creams in China. A news report from the same month stated that Papa Recipe planned to launch a “War on Fakes” (짝퉁과의 전쟁) by adding hologram stickers to their products. The verification representative with whom I corresponded wrote, “After August 2016, [a verification] sticker is attached on the all Bombee product.”
Papa Recipe products have expiration dates and not dates of manufacture stamped on them. It’s easy to determine the date of manufacture by deducting two years from the expiration date. All masks made by Papa Recipe with expiration dates of 1 September 2018 and after should have verification stickers on them.
Counterfeiting is such a problem with Papa Recipe products that the brand itself, within their authentication app, warns of a fake verification app offered in Chinese app stores. Clearly Chinese customers are concerned about buying authentic goods and are actively trying to authenticate them. Yet counterfeiting is widespread (and profitable) enough that counterfeiters are trying to subvert the authentication system established by the brand. When downloading Papa Recipe’s app, select the version called Paparecipe S made by iCRAFT Co. (I was unable to find the counterfeit verification app in the App Store).
How to authenticate [some] Korean beauty products using verification apps
There are two companies that I’m aware of that make Korean beauty authentication apps. Keep in mind that not every brand uses verification technology and that products made by even the brands listed here won’t have stickers if they were manufactured before the introduction of the technology to that brand.
download their main app
Their kbeauty brand partners: Mediheal, Papa Recipe, 23years old
What their stickers look like:
download their main app (iOS | Android)
Their kbeauty brand partners: full list of brands on their website; brands include Re:cipe (makers of J.ONE), Dr.Althea, 3CE, May Coop, Jay Jun, Polatam, Moonshot, Claire’s, Clio, Forencos, Dr.Jart+.
What their stickers look like:
The apps are dead easy to use and the ones in my App Store were written in English. I opened them up, gave permission for the app to use my camera, used either the live (video) authentication mode or photo mode. Live doesn’t require you to snap a photo, but it does seem to require more light. After the image of the sticker has been captured, it’s transmitted to servers in Korea for authentication, and then you see a screen after about a minute or so that says if your product is authentic or not. The apps store up to 20 certificates of authenticity (or inauthenticity!) at a time, give or take.
In the event you need to report a counterfeit item, you just click a button and submit some information. I’ve only reported a counterfeit item with Brandsafer, but I received a report receipt via email shortly after submitting the report in the app. Then the company asked if I could chat with them on a messenger service like Line, Wechat, or Kakao talk.
If people have difficulty using the apps, I can always make a tutorial. But I think it’s pretty self-explanatory.
A Q&A with Hiddentag
I was uncertain about whether to include these questions I asked my contact at Hiddentag and her answers because I was concerned that it would come across as shilly in light of the fact that they once offered me money to write a post, but I’m going to take that risk because the answers they gave me are really fucking illuminating and I think they clear up a lot of what I needed to know — hopefully they’re useful to you.
Keep in mind that my counterfeit mask’s sticker was made by Brandsafer, another brand, so the technology may vary between brands (especially since so much appears to be proprietary). I’ve edited the questions and answers for clarify and brevity.
fanserviced-b: I’m shocked that a mask I bought registered as a potential counterfeit product. How accurate is the technology at identifying counterfeit stickers? Is there a chance that the product is actually real?
Hiddentag: I can say that it is 100% accurate because each sticker carries unique hidden serial numbers. We have a dedicated server here in Korea, and the server stores the information of every single sticker. When the sticker is scanned by the HiddenTag app, it connects the sticker’s information to the server and the server checks the authenticity.
There is a chance that a product shown as counterfeit can be real only if that exact sticker has been scanned 10 times before.
Some of our client brands want to show a “Warning page” (that says the product is counterfeit) if someone scans a sticker more than 10 times. End-users normally scan just 1-2 times to check the authenticity, and if someone scans more than 10 times we suspect that counterfeiters are trying to duplicate that certain sticker. So if that sticker was scanned 10 times before, starting with the 11th time, it will be shown as counterfeit.
fanserviced-b: What happens if a customer scans a sticker and it registers as a possible counterfeit?
Hiddentag: Each brand has a dedicated authenticity page as well as a warning page, and many brands have a “Report Counterfeit” button on the Warning page. So end-users can report counterfeit products right away or contact our HiddenTag customer support center.
Also our server records all scan records and we provide monitoring reports to brands. This scan record information includes the actual location of scanning, time, and date. So the location, scan time, and other information about the sticker that has been scanned many times and is suspected to be part of an attempt to counterfeit will be sent to the brand right away. This is so brands can know the exact location where the counterfeit attempt happened. (Surprisingly, many times it is found that some distributors in China or OEM manufacturers are found to be attempting to duplicate the [authentic] sticker.)
fanserviced-b: How is the HiddenTag technology more advanced than the scannable QR codes I’ve seen on products?
Hiddentag: QR code is an open-source technology. Due to the fact that anyone can generate QR codes, it is easy to make a copy of not only the QR Code, but also the authenticity verification page. If both fake QR codes and fake authenticity pages are generated, it will cause even greater confusion to consumers and would be more difficult to detect counterfeit attempts.
So let’s say if one brand has the QR code sticker on their product that can be scanned by a general QR code reader, counterfeiters can generate the exact same QR code free from QR code generating sites. After that, counterfeiters can link it to the URL of the authentication page. Forging a QR code authentication system is so easy and can be done within 5 minutes.
In the case of HiddenTag, we utilize digital watermarking technology, which means we embed unique data in every single sticker. HiddenTag stickers can only be printed by a very special printer. In Korea, less than 5 printing companies can print these indigo stickers. So let’s say even 100 stickers look exactly the same, they all carry unique information that is hidden inside the image. Only the HiddenTag application can connect this unique data of the sticker to our server, and then the server checks whether the sticker information matches with the original information.
So it is much more secure compared to a QR code. Also because we have the dedicated app and server, distributor management is possible. Companies can detect the parallel distribution.
A call to Western beauty companies
Let’s not pretend that this counterfeiting problem is limited to Korean beauty products. If you’ve ever looked at certain sites known for selling counterfeit goods, I’m sure you’ve seen your fair share of Urban Decay Naked 7 palettes, “Huda” palettes, and “Kylie” lip kits. For customers who don’t live in the “Sephora zone,” buying authentic beauty products popular on Instagram and YouTube can be really difficult. How do these customers know that they’re getting authentic goods? In this way, they have the same problem international fans of kbeauty are now dealing with.
The difference is that Korean companies, both beauty brands and authentication firms, are actually addressing the problem of counterfeit goods and giving customers tools to authenticate what they’ve bought. Once I realized how verification apps work, it seemed kind of crazy that I’m throwing down $$$ all the time without even so much as a nod at easy, autonomous product authentication. Yeah, I only buy prestige products at prestige retailers, but MAC and Dior can’t throw me a bone, in part so customers who live in places with fewer easy ways to buy their products can know they’re getting the real thing?
- There’s no evidence at this time that Korean beauty product counterfeits are widely circulating in the U.S. Trust me, it would have made a great article for another publication and I’d have collected a real paycheck to write about it, but I was unable to line up the #receipts, and without #receipts, there’s no story.
- That said, this is worthwhile information to share because it can help prevent the circulation of counterfeit goods and reassure consumers about the authenticity of what they’re buying.
- I could find no evidence that Amazon is selling counterfeit products in the Prime category.
- The lack of stickers on some masks sold via Amazon Prime is not a particularly happy development, but it’s totally plausible that authentic masks manufactured less than one year ago would be sold on Amazon Prime.
- This sticker technology is actually pretty amazing
- but it would be great if more companies (especially trendy and luxury brands) offered it.
Ok, now that this post is finally finished, I can finally dig into my $100 worth of #receipts and try my first ever Papa Recipe mask. These fuckers better be amazing because I have piles of them. ahahahah shit
Tell me about your experiences authenticating your stash with these apps. I scheduled this post a few days before a giant work clusterfuck (rather than during it) so I’d be around to talk.