Customs agents target counterfeit consumer goods


MIAMI -- Some Christmas gifts are not what they appear to be. To demonstrate this, Lou Marcos, a Customs Service agent, hoisted what looked like a designer-signed scarf off the table and shook it, so the bold logo stood out from the swirl of colorful paisley patterns.

"Christien Dior -- Paris," the misspelled logo read.

Another Customs agent on Mr. Marcos' 12-man team of trade enforcement inspectors here turned a green-and-white striped Chanel T-shirt inside out to show off the handiwork of the seamstress who produced the status-symbol garment. The backing used on the dinner-plate-sized logo was a sheet of newspaper from Thailand.

Such incongruities sometimes make it easy to detect the tens of millions of dollars' worth of counterfeit consumer objects that VTC show up at ports of entry in the United States each year. But often, the counterfeiters are quite skillful.

"If we figure out a scheme, almost immediately they come up with another way of doing things," said Susan Wilson, an attorney at Customs' intellectual property rights branch in Washington. "There's so much money here, people are very creative in coming up with ways to circumvent the law."

Indeed, in the 1992 fiscal year, which ended in September, Customs agents seized 522 shipments of goods -- worth $90 million -- that violated trademark or copyright laws. Over the past four years, $260 million worth of goods was seized.

In Miami, a high-volume port of entry for garments manufactured the Caribbean, Central America and beyond, $650 million worth of apparel comes in each year, corresponding to more than 20,000 shipments or items within shipments, each needing tariff classifications.

"We calculate the statistical breakdown at a 97.6 percent compliance rate -- it's the 2.4 percent of violations that we have to watch," said Jim Elzer, director of Customs'operational analysis staff in Miami.

One way that Customs agents around the country catch counterfeits is through the use of an electronic data base of trademarked goods to determine how a product should look -- what size, shape, color, labeling and other characteristics a product should carry.

"There are 16,000 trademarks listed with us," said Ms. Wilson, at Customs headquarters. But there are so many products and so many licensed importers that it can be difficult to track who is importing what.

"In some circumstances, we can't be sure," Ms. Wilson said. "Some companies have thousands of licensees that change monthly."

So Customs agents sometimes place calls to trademark holders, asking questions about a product, which the officials can hold for up to 30 days for examination.

"We see our function as a judge," Ms. Wilson said. "It's the intellectual property owner vs. the importer. We have to determine whose rights to protect. We're not the hired guns of copyright or the trademark holder."

Thus, a trademark lawyer may file a Freedom of Information request with Customs to see paperwork documenting certain goods, which can illuminate such problems as gray-market routes of goods that are not counterfeit but that circumvent licensed exporters and importers.

Once Customs determines that a shipment violates law, penalties are assessed, the goods are seized and the trademark holder is advised. Then, Customs determines what to do with the goods.

This year, a $40,000 lot of fake designer jeans was donated to a Miami-area children's home. In another case, 200,000 bogus Lacoste shirts were delivered to the Salvation Army -- sans alligator. More recently, after Hurricane Andrew, fake Reebok and Nike tennis shoes were distributed to homeless victims in Miami, with the blessings of the trademark holders.

"The recipients were advised that the shoes were not really Nikes, though," Mr. Marcos said.

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