Feds on the hunt for fakes, frauds and knock-offs
KENT, Wash. -- From the fashion houses of Milan and New York to the street corners and malls near your neighborhood -- fashion sells. And if it's fashion for a bargain? Well that's the pot of gold. But what if it's just fool's gold?
A well-oiled partnership is putting "the hurt" on makers of Gucci and Prada knock-offs, as well as lead-filled kids' items. The Feds took us behind the scenes as they went in search of dangerous toys and fake fashions.
The search took us to a non-descript warehouse in the industrial district of the Kent valley. There, officers with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection showed us just some of their "take."
Assistant Area Port Director James Sullivan with the CBP held up what appeared to be a legitimate Louis Vuitton handbag.
"This is a knock-off," he said.
While most bargain-basement fashionistas would lust after the bags Sullivan put on display, there wasn't a real Prada, Coach, or Kate Spade in the bunch. And then he rubbed it in.
"These are all counterfeits, these are all knockoffs, they're all fakes," he said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officers are at the front line of finding the knock-offs, fakes and sub-standard products. And they work hand-in-hand with investigators from the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Pallet after pallet, box after box, the officers and investigators match up manifests with what's really inside and determine if it needs a deeper inspection.
Long-time partners, the two agencies really began working closely together two years ago after a huge spike in lead-contaminated toys hit stores in the U.S. CPSC Investigator Marcus Morris outlines the risks.
"Toxicity, lead and even pthalates can affect development in very young children -- physical and mental development," Morris said.
Now the partner agencies share space at the Kent warehouse, where they inspect twelve and a half cargo containers every single day. Each one must be gone through to make sure that what's inside is safe to use.
The CPSC checks for the safety of products, especially those meant for children. They now have speedy, hand-held analyzers that can quickly test for lead and other heavy metals, while another machine checks for pthalates -- six types of the chemical are banned in the U.S.
The goal is to stop any questionable or unsafe items here, before they ever make it to store shelves.
"We've seen a significant reduction with injuries and deaths associated with products containing lead," Morris said.
They've also seen a significant reduction in the number of recalls that must be ordered after the product makes it to stores.
But while CPSC checks for product safety, CBP officers watch for knock-offs and evidence that intellectual property is being stolen or copied. And they are also watching for a different type of threat. CBP Assistant Port Director Sullivan puts it this way: "We're a last line of defense."
Too often, according to CBP, the guys shipping the sub-standard and knock-off products are also using their organization for otherl types of crimes.
"They're also involved in the movement of people in an illegal way for immigration purposes, the movement of illegal drugs and weapons as well," Sullivan said.
Over the past year this partnership has kept thousands of unsafe toys and clothes, hundreds of pounds of illegal drugs, and tens of thousands of dollars worth of knock-off merchandise from ever having a chance of getting to the American public.