According to data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, counterfeit products, fakes, and forgeries cost the global economy about half a trillion dollars annually in lost revenue every year. Trade of counterfeit goods accounted for as much as 2.5 percent of world trade in 2016, an increase from an estimated 1.9 percent in 2008 – now roughly equivalent to the size of Austria’s whole economy.

“There is no bigger crime than counterfeit crime,” according to Robert Young, a physics professor Lancaster University in the UK.

Earlier in July, Young published a new technique for combating counterfeiting. Published online in ArXiv, Cornell University’s open-access preprint journal, the new approach uses a relatively simple method to confirm the authenticity of an item. A unique molecular pattern is imprinted onto a holographic label, and a smartphone app is used to confirm its presence.

The pattern is imprinted by creating distinctive flaws on the molecular level, such as the removal of a carbon atom, or extra oxygen atoms, or a fabricated ridge of atoms, in an atomic layer of a material such as graphene oxide. The flaw is incorporated into an ink and printed onto a hologram with an inkjet printer. The hologram can then be used as a label on any product.

Using a smartphone and its built-in flash to photograph the label, the method relies on the flash to excite the atoms, which show a unique color depending on the atomic pattern. An app analyzes the resulting image to determine whether the item is counterfeit.

“I’m really satisfied by how simple it is,” Young said.

He said that addressing such a widespread problem as counterfeiting calls for an approach that can be adopted on a large scale. His team is already working with a company that prints holograms, saying their method could be employed on automobile parts, which are already spray painted with labels. By adding the holograms to an existing industry procedure, researchers can test their method on a large scale.

“We’re expecting the first products in market in the first quarter of next year, in 2018,” according to Young.

The researchers say they would next approach other industries such as pharmaceuticals, which loses 200 billion dollars annually to counterfeit drugs. Young pointed out that this illegal medicine can even lead to deaths.

He explained:

“Thirty percent of counterfeit pharmaceuticals don’t contain the correct active ingredient. People buy these things, believe they’re real, but they’re not being treated for the disease.”

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