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Lego Fans Tricked By Counterfeit Kits

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Legos are more than a toy. They're an investment. The company that makes those little plastic building blocks pulled in more than $5.5 billion in sales last year. They often sell Legos in special kits, sometimes depicting famous movie scenes. And they retire those kits after a while, making them collector's items for fans and upping their value. But where there's money to be made, there are also scams. Let's go into the world of counterfeit Lego sets with Stacey Vanek Smith and Sally Herships from the podcast The Indicator at Planet Money.

SALLY HERSHIPS, BYLINE: Tom Glascoe (ph) lives in Dayton, Ohio. He has three kids, and they all love Lego, which is how he got into trouble. He'd been looking for a Lego X-Wing Resistance Fighter for his son.

TOM GLASCOE: And so perusing Facebook one day, I saw an ad for it for what seemed to be a low but maybe not too low of a price.

HERSHIPS: The X-Wing was half price - just 30 bucks.

GLASCOE: The pieces weren't the same quality, and they didn't go together quite as nicely as regular Legos.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Tom had bought what turned out to be a knockoff Lego set, a counterfeit. On their own, Legos are just these little plastic bricks. You can see why it would be tempting to make counterfeits. It's not like trying to make a fake AirPod or an Apple Watch or something. The biggest and most notorious of these counterfeiters is a Chinese brand called LEPIN. It operates completely openly. I mean, you can visit the company's website, lepinworld.com, and you will see that its logo and Lego's logo are almost identical. But if you end up buying a knockoff, you don't just risk getting a flimsier product. You could also end up costing yourself money down the line if you are planning to resell your Legos later on.

HERSHIPS: To understand how the Lego scams work, I turned to a super fan, Steve Elliot (ph). He is 38 and lives in Albany, Wis.

STEVE ELLIOT: If someone posts, like, a big $700 Lego set, people will zoom in and look to see if they can see the Lego stamp on the top of a brick, which is called a stud. And if they don't see it, they'll accuse them of it being a knockoff product.

VANEK SMITH: The Lego community is enormous. There are whole websites like brickpicker.com, Brick Link and Facebook groups like Star Wars Lego Collectors USA. And if you buy fakes, even accidentally, and try to resell them, you could get yourself banned.

HERSHIPS: In 2017, something unprecedented happened in the Lego aftermarket, the secondary market. The prices of big sets, those giant boxes with, like, thousands of Lego pieces, they started dropping. And this is, according to Brick Picker, one of those Lego pricing and investment guides, unprecedented. Here is a clip from the BrickPicker YouTube channel.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

BROOK JOHNSON: Now, the elephant in the room, of course, is the Lego Millennium Falcon. And take a look at the Lego Millennium Falcon graph.

VANEK SMITH: When the Lego Millennium Falcon was first released over a decade ago, it was the most expensive Lego set ever - $499.99. And then the price shot up to almost $5,000. But a couple years ago, it dropped by more than 30% in less than a year.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

JOHNSON: In fact, buying this set was one of the worst decisions that I made in my entire collection.

VANEK SMITH: BrickPicker said all these fake Millennium Falcons started cropping up all over the Internet from places like Lepin - knockoff Millennium Falcon sets, which, of course, sell for much less.

HERSHIPS: A lot of the Lego fans I talked to were pretty upset about this. So be careful out there the next time you are toy shopping. Make sure you are getting the real thing.

Sally Herships.

VANEK SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.