No fine, yet, but the company must answer questions and provide documents on hundreds of products – if the company is still around.

Counterfeit Rolexes, sure. Or Coach bags. But cell phones? Blackberrys? Really?

Really. Consumer electronics is among the biggest categories of counterfeit imports. (Although that still doesn’t explain the Blackberrys.)

The Department of Homeland Security, which includes Customs and Border Protection, asked the FCC to check on some suspect Samsung Galaxy and Blackberry devices being imported and marketed by a California company. All cell phones, along with many other electronic devices, must be labeled with an “FCC ID” number specific to the device. The numbers, which evidence compliance with FCC technical rules, are easy to check on this page of the FCC website.

Here, the numbers on the Samsung phones turned out to be valid Samsung numbers – but the devices bearing the numbers didn’t match up with the specs tied to those numbers in the FCC’s database. Samsung took a look and confirmed they had neither manufactured the devices nor authorized the labeling. The Blackberrys didn’t even make it that far: they bore two different, plausible-looking numbers, neither of which was valid for anything.

We will pause here to wonder why a counterfeiter bright enough to know about FCC ID numbers did not bother to use the right numbers for the particular phones he was counterfeiting.

The FCC did not go after the counterfeiter, who is somewhere overseas, but instead cited Panasystem Corp., the company that runs, which offers a variety of cell phones on line (or used to; see below). The company imported and marketed the phones in question, according to the FCC. A retailer like Panasystem cannot be made to pay a fine until it first receives an official warning and subsequently repeats the offense.

The FCC has now issued that warning. But it also applied a sanction of a different kind. The same document that warns Panasystem also requires it to respond to a long list of questions and documentation requests about every FCC-regulated device it imported or marketed in the past year. Considering that the company’s website listed 206 different products on the day the FCC’s warning came out, the response could definitely become a burden. And, no doubt to Panasystem’s dismay, simply tossing the FCC’s letter into the trash is not an attractive option: the FCC’s rules impose potentially significant fines for the mere failure to respond. (On the other hand, Panasystem may not care: the day after the FCC’s warning, Panasystem’s website became inaccessible, suggesting that the company may have decamped.)

How can websites and other retailers avoid this problem? One way is to check the FCC database for the FCC ID number of every product that comes in. Yes, it’s work, but a lot less than responding to lengthy inquiries from the FCC. At least until the counterfeiters get smart enough to start using the right FCC ID numbers.