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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.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers pursue counterfeiters as part of enforcing international trade laws.
Published Aug. 7, 2016

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 jstockfisch@tampabay.com.

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