Faked Out

Looking for counterfeit goods, sheriff's deputies go bargain hunting

Digging through piles of nondescript hats, T-shirts and sweatshirts at T-N-T Sports Wear, I soon struck shopper's gold. It came in the form of a baby-blue knit cap bearing that famous Ralph Lauren insignia, the tiny polo player so beloved by Yuppies. Only $2.50--a steal of a deal. At least it would have been, except for one nagging problem. The tiny pony stitched into the cap was either an unusually well-endowed stallion or a mutant.

Which leads us to our first tip for shopping the discount stores that cluster near Harry Hines Boulevard: Horses have four legs, not five.

Here's another: caveat emptor.

Just weeks after Dallas County sheriff's deputies raided the first of two neighborhood shops on January 22 on suspicion of dealing in counterfeit merchandise, the Dallas Observervisited several stores in the Northwest Dallas bargain-hunter's Mecca to see how large a dent the officers had made in the sale of ersatz goods. Deputies had confiscated $500,000 worth of allegedly counterfeit designer purses and apparel at Purse Mart and Royal Sports Wear, but was that enough to slow the trade in counterfeit and near-counterfeit goods elsewhere? Not a chance.

"It's difficult, because it's proliferated in the Dallas area for so long, to get all these people shut down," says Sheriff's Department spokesman Sergeant Don Peritz. "It's impossible to do so. There's no way. If we had every person in the department involved in it, there's no way we could shut them all down."

Most of the stores claim to be on the straight and narrow, such as Broadway Bargains, a boutique in the same shopping center as the recently raided Purse Mart. "Never, never, because we are very clean," says Broadway Bargains employee Nisha Charnye to customers who request counterfeits. "They ask, but we said we don't do all that. We have never done that before, so they know." Yet other stores are crammed with "almost counterfeit" merchandise--T-shirts, jackets, hats, handbags and watches emblazoned with logos similar to big-name designer brands. Though these items aren't strictly considered counterfeit, they base their value on the brand recognition, bordering on trademark infringement. Knockoffs such as the five-legged Polo pony skate close to the edge but remain within the boundaries of legal merchandise. In addition to the mutant pony, my shopping trips found "Adiaas" and "Ekco" T-shirts. For another $70, I scored a "Tommu Sports" wind suit, a "Timmy Girl" T-shirt, a "Didas" hoodie, a "Tipfany & Co." bracelet and a "Barley-Davidson" belt buckle.

The bargains seemed unbelievable, especially in the Shopper's Alley strip mall near Harry Hines and Royal, where several of the sportswear items were on sale. There were even better bargains to be had at T-Point and T-N-T Sports, since they didn't seem to charge sales tax when I paid by cash. (T-Point and T-N-T Sports and four other shops were closed indefinitely after damage from a fire on February 6.)

High demand for these products makes counterfeiting and knockoffs a booming business. Authorities and manufacturers annually seize millions of unauthorized products all over the globe; Adidas alone confiscated more than 6 million pieces in 2001, and the numbers don't seem to be improving. Counterfeit goods accounted for 5 to 7 percent of world trade--or $359 billion--in 2001, according to estimates by the Counterfeiting Intelligence Bureau, a division of the International Chamber of Commerce.

Despite the well-publicized raids at Purse Mart and Royal Sports Wear, the department has yet to file formal charges in either case and is continuing to assess the evidence. Peritz says that raiding every small-time vendor is not the department's ultimate goal. "We want to try and get the volume people and follow the money back to its origins, follow the product back to its origins and see where it leads us," he says.

Some authorities suspect that the trail might lead to organized crime syndicates and terrorist organizations. The International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based group that combats counterfeiting, reports that criminal groups originating in China, Vietnam and Northern Ireland have all sold counterfeit goods to support their activities. It also claims that the sale of fraudulent merchandise may have financed the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Though the Dallas County Sheriff's Department has not focused on counterfeiting until recently, heightened concerns about homeland security prompted it to investigate. As the information came to us that there was the possibility that some of these type of organizations may fund organized crime or terrorist organizations, we became interested," Peritz says. "We have yet to find an affirmative link in any of these [businesses] between organized crime or terrorist organizations."

Consumers may not be aware of these worries, or maybe they just don't care. The appeal of owning a "name brand" product at a fraction of the price can outweigh whatever moral dilemma shoppers feel when considering a counterfeit purchase. Or shoppers may believe they are undermining big businesses that are out to rip them off. If the motivation is the latter, it's working. Industries vulnerable to faking--apparel, computer technology and software, film and music--report losing billions of dollars per year in potential revenue; plus, companies spend millions actively combating illegal wares.

"It's not just the damage in dollar terms, but a quality issue also," says Anne Putz, corporate public relations manager for Adidas. When a company's name or logo is connected with a low-quality, defective or even dangerous counterfeit, the company's image suffers--an image that corporations have spent countless advertising dollars to perfect.

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