Counterfeiting can occur at any point in the product life cycle, whether it originates at the manufacturer or as distributors unwittingly transport fake goods. One strategy to pinpoint counterfeits is to identify fake products using barcodes, but do they work?


The question is legitimate because barcodes weren’t invented for security but rather for traceability instead. Today, any machine-readable code counts as a barcode, which includes matrix codes and QR codes, but when they are fraudulent, consumers suffer the most since they can inadvertently buy fake products like illicit pharmaceuticals and medical devices.


Which industries demand improved traceability using barcodes?

As we touched upon above, the pharmaceutical industry at large has developed many countermeasures to catch counterfeits as they move through the value chain, but it’s not the only domain where brands need improved traceability. The automotive industry, electronics, and luxury goods are three additional markets where brands often maintain complete visibility across a globally distributed supply chain. Other stakeholders include apparel and footwear brands and the food and beverage industry as well.


Nonetheless, anti-counterfeit security is critical in all those businesses since counterfeiters initially try to exploit visible markings like barcodes, also known as matrix codes. The catch is that barcodes, often used for traceability, are not a wholesale replacement for complex anti-counterfeit safeguards, yet many companies make a mistake. The issue revolves around the fact that an overt marking, whether it’s small printing or tamper-resistant packaging, can be changed and should not be the primary security feature. Here’s why.


Traceability’s inherent shortcomings

When implemented well, traceability has a place in any anti-counterfeit strategy, but it’s wrong to think of traceability protections, such as visible barcodes, as an alternative to hidden safeguards. Traceability tech has come a long way in recent times, but it’s not flawless. The overarching concept of traceability itself has several inherent shortcomings, which we’ll outline below.


Determining product authenticity

A barcode works well to trace where a product has been at any point in the life cycle, yet this chain of custody doesn’t guarantee that goods are authentic. A good example is when a counterfeit manufacturer creates over-run products and packages them with similar verifiable tracking and tracing information. The problem is that the item isn’t authentic from the moment it leaves the shop floor, so any traceability measures, no matter if it’s a barcode, won’t expose the con.


Altered information

Similarly, a sophisticated counterfeiter can alter the traceability information if printed on a barcode without additional protection. If the barcode is on a sticker, for example, someone can copy it and reapply fake stickers on fake products – and the consumer doesn’t know the difference because the goods appear legitimate when the barcode is scanned. Ideally, a tracking system will identify duplicate codes scanned in different locations, yet the scam isn’t limited to sticker duplication because fraudsters can also alter information in other ways.


A con artist can simply remove the traceability information on the barcode by eliminating the printing altogether. That’s one reason anti-counterfeit packaging is so helpful when pinpointing fake goods since the barcode cannot simply be removed. Instead, it can be faked, and misleading information can come in several forms. It’s a mistake to assume that traceability alone is adequate anti-counterfeit protection because that isn’t the original purpose.


Essentially, brands need to combine traceability features like barcodes with covert features to protect the authenticity of the barcode itself. Otherwise, there’s a risk that fraudsters will exploit the traceability information in any way they can.


Benefits of traceability in combination with covert features

That being said, combining traceability features with an overt identifier is not the most effective strategy because, as we just outlined, a sophisticated criminal can replicate those markings. The end user and the brand can fall under a false sense of security. As such, it’s best to combine barcodes with covert features that con artists cannot readily replicate since the tech is proprietary. The challenge is to build a complete anti-counterfeit defense that doesn’t require special devices for products to read barcodes.


The benefits of combining security protections are significant, and many companies are improving their security posture by adopting this perspective. The idea is to layer defenses to make counterfeiting extraordinarily difficult, if not wholly impossible. If businesses make an ecosystem of protection, they can increase the likelihood that traceability information will be accurate and reliable.


Without a doubt, enabling such capabilities is feasible when combining barcodes with the high-tech, covert defenses developed by AlpVision: Cryptoglyph and Secure QR Codes.


Cryptoglyph and Secure QR Codes – Packaging and Label Protection

AlpVision’s covert anti-counterfeit solution – Cryptoglyph – works great to secure packaging and labeling. Initially invented in 2001, our Cryptoglyph software relied on punching small dots with standard ink over the package’s surface. These microscopic holes were invisible to the naked eye and, likewise, hidden to counterfeiters as well. Not only that but there was also no requirement to develop more technology because you can maintain the production processes you already have.


Comparable solutions during this initial period relied on a document scan to detect the fraud, yet this method also introduces unnecessary risks. It’s more challenging to verify identifiers on packagings like stick packs and plastic bags, so our company developed Secure QR Code tech to complement the updates to Cryptoglyph.


One way to create an anti-counterfeit system is to add Cryptoglyphs in the varnish layer on top of ordinary QR codes or basic barcodes. The one-of-a-kind Cryptoglyph verifies that goods are genuine, or as an alternative, you can use Secure QR Codes for protection if your business uses certain printing methods.


With AlpVision, you can verify both the product and the code in one step, using an ordinary smartphone camera to scan the mark. Certainly, Cryptoglyphs are very effective and sophisticated enough to thwart counterfeiters, yet Secure QR codes are another option for creating a more robust ecosystem.


That way, you will have an additional layer of protection that will only increase the efficiency of anti-counterfeit technology. You can’t do away with counterfeiting altogether, but you can make it much harder for criminals to trick unwitting consumers. The main question is: which strategy would work best for your organization?


If you’d like to read more about the benefits of Cryptoglyph and Secured QR Codes,

Download our latest white paper to learn which one to use.



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