Fed counterfeit crackdown nets $75 million in goods

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Authorities conducting a six-week counterfeit sweep in three countries seized 327,000 phony items including fake Hello Kitty clothing and cheap imitation Casio G-Shock sport watches that if legitimate carry suggested retail prices of more than $76 million, federal investigators said Thursday.

“Counterfeiting remains a significant problem that demands strong enforcement efforts both here and abroad,” said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton.

ICE and other agencies, as well as the Mexican and South Korean governments, targeted flea markets, seaports, land ports of entry, swap meets and retail stores between Nov. 1 and Dec. 9 in 66 cities in the U.S., 55 cities in Mexico and in Seoul, South Korea. Handbags, cell phones, toys, computer software, DVDs and sports jerseys were among other items seized.

Thirty-three people have been arrested on charges of trafficking in counterfeit goods. Investigators said they hope the sweep dubbed “Operation Holiday Hoax II” will help them identify organized crime groups behind the multimillion-dollar fake merchandise industry.

“We can hopefully trace that back to the source,” said Carmen Pino, acting deputy special agent in charge of ICE’s Miami office. “They just like to move a product that has a high rate of return and low risk. They don’t care what the product is.”

For example, the G-Shock watch retails for around $100. Fake ones can be made for a few dollars in China, then sold at a flea market or on the street corner for $30. That’s a huge profit for the counterfeiters, but not the good deal it might seem for the purchaser.

“You’re not getting good value for your dollar,” said Gerard O’Neill, assistant special agent in charge of the Miami ICE office. “The buyer has to beware.”

Investigators target the holiday season for counterfeit goods because of the surge in consumer purchases, which counterfeiters are eager to exploit.

In Mexico, officials said 845 inspections at ports of entry yielded seizure of almost 24 million counterfeit items with a U.S. dollar value of about $7.1 million.

A similar U.S. operation in December 2009 resulted in seizure of about $26 million in counterfeit goods. In addition, U.S. officials announced earlier this year that 150 websites suspected of selling fake merchandise had been shut down.