Make us your home page

The feds are cracking down on fake trendy purses, belts and watches in Tampa Bay

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers pursue counterfeiters as part of enforcing international trade laws.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers pursue counterfeiters as part of enforcing international trade laws.

TAMPA — The people who are working to keep terrorists out of the country and dope off the streets are also making it a little harder for you to score a knockoff of one of those trendy handbags, belts or watches.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, has initiated cases against at least seven people in the past year in U.S. District Court for Florida's middle district, which includes the Tampa Bay area, alleging the counterfeiting of consumer products, chiefly women's handbags.

It's not small potatoes. A Hernando County couple is accused of selling nearly $1.4 million worth of purses infringing on the trademarks of Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Prada, Hermes and Gucci. A Pinellas couple sold more than $878,000 worth of the stuff.

"This year I guess we've had good luck," said Ritchie Flores, group supervisor of fraud investigations for Homeland Security. "But it's more accessible. It's out there on every corner. The volumes we see are just gigantic."

The knockoff goods typically come from Chinese manufacturers.

Fake purses fall under the purview of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, because its mission is to promote homeland security through the criminal and civil enforcement of federal laws governing customs, international trade and immigration.

The workload at the Tampa court results from the sheer dollar figures the accused are bringing in as such transactions move from flea-market counters to global online trading, said Flores.

"We look for our biggest bang for our buck," he said. "We tend to focus more on the financial side, looking for somebody who's moving volumes of merchandise."

The cases can be initiated by complaints from customers, from other law enforcement agencies, or from representatives of the designers themselves.

"We work hand in hand with industry, because obviously, they're going to be the one who's going to be able to authenticate their brand," said Rana Saoud, another fraud group supervisor in Tampa.

A spokeswoman from Michael Kors declined to comment, and officials at Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Ray-Ban and Gucci, all of whom are named in Tampa complaints, did not respond to requests for interviews.

But the designers take the issue very seriously — all have brand-protection divisions and the businesses typically address counterfeiting and how to avoid it on their websites.

The problem extends far beyond the Tampa Bay area.

A Customs and Border Protection fact sheet notes that in fiscal year 2012, the most recent data available, there were 22,848 intellectual property rights seizures with a manufacturer's suggested retail value of $1.26 billion. Handbags and wallets are the fourth-most trafficked items, behind apparel, electronics and CDs/DVRs.

The National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center said that such theft negatively affects the economic well-being of the designers and manufacturers through lost profits, brand dilution and enforcement costs, while all of us suffer through job and tax-revenue losses.

The ICE agents noted that dealing in counterfeit material may be attractive to participants because unlike drug trafficking, they don't deal with dangerous drugs, guns and street crime. But the main motivation is likely the bottom line.

"You only have to think about the money," Flores said. "You buy a watch for $5 or $6, and it's being sold for $50 or $60, just do the math. It's just ridiculous."

Contact Jerome R. Stockfisch at

How to avoid buying a counterfeit item

• Scrutinize labels, packaging and contents. Look for missing or expired "use by" dates, broken or missing safety seals, or otherwise unusual packaging.

• Seek authorized retailers. Companies often publish lists of authorized retailers online.

• Watch for missing sales tax charges.

• Warn friends and family of illegitimate product sources. Word of mouth is one of the best ways to spread information about dangerous and defective products and those who sell them.

• Trust your instincts. As always, beware of a purchase that is "too good to be true."

Source: National Intellectual Property Rights Coordinating Center

The feds are cracking down on fake trendy purses, belts and watches in Tampa Bay 08/04/16 [Last modified: Saturday, August 6, 2016 9:29pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Federal agencies demand records from SeaWorld theme park


    ORLANDO — Two federal agencies are reportedly demanding financial records from SeaWorld.

    Killer whales Ikaika and Corky participate in behaviors commonly done in the wild during SeaWorld's Killer Whale educational presentation in this photo from Jan. 9. SeaWorld has been subpoenaed by two federal agencies for comments that executives and the company made in August 2014 about the impact from the "Blackfish" documentary. 
[Nelvin C. Cepeda/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS]
  2. Legalized medical marijuana signed into law by Rick Scott

    State Roundup

    TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott on Friday signed into law a broader medical marijuana system for the state, following through on a promise he made earlier this month.

    Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation on Friday that legalizes medical marijuana in Florida.
  3. Line of moms welcome Once Upon A Child to Carrollwood


    CARROLLWOOD — Strollers of all shapes and sizes are lined up in front of the store, and inside, there are racks of children's clothing in every color of the rainbow.

    At Once Upon A Child, you often as many baby strollers outside as you find baby furniture and accessories. It recently opened this location in Carrollwood. Photo by Danielle Hauser
  4. Pastries N Chaat brings North India cuisine to North Tampa


    TAMPA — Pastries N Chaat, a new restaurant offering Indian street food, opened this week near the University of South Florida.

    The menu at Pastries N Chaat includes a large variety of Biriyani, an entree owners say is beloved by millions. Photo courtesy of Pastries N Chaat.
  5. 'Garbage juice' seen as threat to drinking water in Florida Panhandle county


    To Waste Management, the nation's largest handler of garbage, the liquid that winds up at the bottom of a landfill is called "leachate," and it can safely be disposed of in a well that's 4,200 feet deep.

    Three samples that were displayed by Jackson County NAACP President Ronstance Pittman at a public meeting on Waste Management's deep well injection proposal. The sample on the left is full of leachate from the Jackson County landfill, the stuff that would be injected into the well. The sample on the right shows leachate after it's been treated at a wastewater treatment plant. The one in the middle is tap water.