Sadly, a thing.
(NOTE: I am based in the USA so this is a USA-centric outlook and guide, but many of these tips can be applied to those residing outside the USA!)
Besides COVID, I think the most surprising thing to happen in 2020 is bootleg manga. That's right. Bootleg manga. As far as bootleg products go, bootleg books at this low-end scale are nonsensical. Mass-produced books have a thin profit margin, and books aren't easily printed in-house unlike other goods like CDs, DVDs, and blu-rays. So, never thought I'd see the day that bootleg manga would be a thing, but here we are. What's even more surprising is that people are being scammed by these listings.
Don't worry. There's good news. The good news is that the bootlegs are easy to spot and aren't as widespread as you think. No need for panic or paranoia. You will only find bootlegs on 3rd party sites and listings like Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, eBay, Mercari, etc. So anything peer-to-peer could have the potential bootleg. Furthermore, this problem exists for a few popular series. If you only buy your manga from retailers and buy series nobody cares about, then you have no worries. However, if you're hunting for deals on popular manga or buying from 3rd party sites, I got you. With a few easy steps, you'll be able to collect with confidence.
1. Know Thy Publisher & Product
When it comes to buying used anything or purchasing from 3rd party sites, you really, really need to know what you're doing, and now that manga is being listed for hundreds and thousands of dollars on places like eBay, you better become an expert. It's important to become familiar with the publisher who releases the books in English. (Ditto for non-English manga if you're interested in collecting that too.)
If you don't know the publisher, you can always compare the 3rd party listing to the ones you see in retail stores like Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Book Depository, and Kinokuniya. Retail stores will never have bootlegs. Comparing the retail site listing or listing on the publisher's site to the 3rd party listing, check for the ISBN and/or UPC numbers, which every book will have. Also, check for general information like release date, page count, author, etc. Make sure all the information listed on the 3rd party site is accurate.
Let's use Red River as an example. Red River is published by VIZ Media in English. The license is still active and has a page on VIZ's website here: https://www.viz.com/read/manga/red-river-volume-1/product/77. Comparing the information, we can easily see that the product listing on eBay is fake. Observe:
(The top is VIZ, and the bottom is eBay.)
2. Check the Spines
Always check the spines or the inside page with copyright info on it. Spines will be sufficient enough as you can see the logo and company name. Some publishers like VIZ and Kodansha go through logo refreshes every several years or so, but their names are always clearly seen on the book somewhere. From the outside, you can typically see publisher names on the spine and back cover of the book. Inside the book, you can find the publisher's name and other copyright info on the last page of the book.
So, using Red River as an example again, we can clearly see that the set shown in the bottom picture is fake. Remember the publisher is VIZ, which is clearly shown on the spines in the top picture. (Don't let the crescent moon shojo logo at the top of the spine throw you off! All of the logos are remnants of old branding.) The bottom picture shows that the set is in English from a publisher other than VIZ.
When in doubt, you can always ask the seller for more pictures. On platforms like Reddit, Craigslist, or Facebook marketplace, you may wish to ask for a physical timestamp. A physical timestamp is simply the user's name and current date on a piece of paper near the books to authenticate that the user has the books they are selling. Here's an example:
Poor-quality pictures are a big red flag. If they are low res, out-of-focus, dark, computer generated, etc., then it might not be worth your time to engage the seller and inquire more about the listing.
3. Buy within your country or region
Buy from within your country or region. Most bootlegs are sold outside the U.S. Malaysia is a popular country of origin for bootleg manga, but by no means, the only one. If you see a listing with any mention of TR Media or WOS Limited Manga BM, stay away. Both publishers are fake!
4. When in doubt, Google
From logos to box sets to library-bound books, you can generally find the answer via Google. For specific series and searches, you can check sites like Wikipedia, which is helpful in learning more about older editions of popular series like Monster by Naoki Urasawa or Fushigi Yugi by Yuu Watase. For English licensing information, you can check databases like MangaUpdates.com. Lastly, BookFinder.com and AbeBooks.com are helpful sites for looking up the ISBN number.
And there you have it! By following four simple tips—know the publisher, check the spines, buy from within your country or region, and for everything else, Google—you will never be scammed by a bootleg seller again. Did you find this guide helpful? Let me know via Twitter @ThatMangaHunter.