Sennheiser Electronic Corp., a high-end audio maker based in Old Lyme, is trying to knock out scores of websites and vendors selling counterfeit versions of its popular headphones, with a blast of lawsuits.

In one case, a phony pair of Sennheiser headphones was purchased from an online website by the son of Sennheiser's president. When Jeremy Falcone complained to his father, company president John Falcone, "It was, 'Hey Dad, these Sennheiser headphones I bought sound horrible!'" Turns out the horrible-sounding headphones were counterfeit, John Falcone said.

Sennheiser, a German company whose U.S. headquarters are located in Old Lyme, CT filed a dozen federal lawsuits this week in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. The lawsuits, which allege trademark infringement and other violations, identify more than 100 suspicious websites and dealers in the U.S. and China engaged in the sale of counterfeit Sennheiser-branded products.

As more pirate websites and dealers selling knockoffs are identified, "more lawsuits will be forthcoming," Falcone said Tuesday.

The audio maker launched the legal barrage after experiencing an increase in the number of warranty claims for Sennheiser-branded headphones.

When engineers at the Old Lyme facility looked at Jeremy Falcone's purchase and others, they discovered that many faulty headphones were counterfeit versions sold by firms in New York, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana and China.

Experts say the sale of counterfeit audio equipment is widespread and on the rise. "Anyone in the premium audio market is experiencing it," Falcone said.

"Counterfeiters are becoming more brazen," said Michael Petricone, senior vice president of government affairs at the Consumer Electronics Association, based in Washington D.C.

"In China they discovered not just counterfeit Apple products but counterfeit Apple stores," Petricone said, citing a recent scam.

Electronics manufacturers are trying to combat the problem using various solutions. Some firms are adding tiny amounts of chemicals to their products that can only be detected by hand-held wands, Petricone said.

"When a shipment comes in, they can wave the wand over the products and tell whether they're authentic." Others are giving each product a unique serial number, allowing consumers to check the item's authenticity on their mobile phone, he said.

Manufacturers and U.S. officials are putting diplomatic pressure on China to crack down on counterfeiters.

Often it's difficult to visually distinguish the genuine item from the forgery. While the sound quality of the counterfeit Sennheiser headphones is decidedly inferior, they resemble the legitimate product.

"There was a slight difference in the color of the cable, but when you open up the counterfeit ones the difference is night and day," Falcone said. "The phony headphones weren't properly soldered or wired." Consumers can guard against fraud by paying close attention to the price tag. "If it seems like an unreal price, it's probably unreal for a reason," Petricone said.

Depending on the model, Sennheiser headphones sell for about $79 to $199, while the counterfeit versions typically are priced at about $29 to $59.

"If the offer seems too good to be true, it's too good to be true," Falcone said.

Sennheiser also discovered that some bloggers were advising audiophiles to buy the bogus headphones and then return them to the company under a warranty claim "and get the real thing," Falcone said. "These are in-ear products, so we always send out a new pair." Sennheiser's policy is to replace genuine products, but if they're counterfeit, "all we can do is advise customers to go back to the seller," Falcone said.

The company hopes the lawsuits will send a loud and clear legal message to counterfeiters: "Messing with the Sennheiser brand will not be tolerated and will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law," Falcone said. "We want the crooks to know that we're going to do everything and anything possible to protect our good name." Click here for a list of authorized Sennheiser dealers.

For questions about counterfeit Sennheiser products or if you think you've purchased a forgery, click here.


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