With counterfeiting crimes on the rise, police are cracking down

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – When you pay good money for a name-brand item like a jacket or a pair of boots, you want to know if it’s the real deal. Police tell Target 12 they’re always on the lookout for fakes, because counterfeiting crimes are on the rise.

Sale on the side of the road

It didn’t take long to spot a suspicious side-of-the-road sale.

Target 12 drove through Providence in a marked Eyewitness News vehicle and saw two men selling Patriots Super Bowl merchandise. As soon as the SUV pulled over and the cameras started rolling, the men packed up and took off.

Target 12 showed that video to Rhode Island State Police Lt. Christopher Zarrella.

“Well, it certainly looks like you’ve made them very nervous,” Zarrella said. “This is characteristic of someone that might be engaged in the sale of some counterfeit items.”

Counterfeiting and piracy cost the U.S. economy an estimated $200 billion to $250 billion each year, according to the Department of Commerce.

“Like a lot of criminal activity, it’s not in a bubble,” added Zarrella. “It’s not just the sale of counterfeit items. Oftentimes we find when we do these investigations, that these guys are involved in other types of crime as well.”

Half-a-million-dollar busts

Cranston Police Detective Sgt. Lori Sweeney says there’s been a spike in counterfeiting crimes in Cranston.

“They’re a lot bolder,” Sweeney told Target 12. “I do have several targets in mind right now, and I’ll be working the cases like I’ve done before. Will it ever go away? No. Can we slow it down? Yes.”

Sweeney gave Target 12 exclusive access to the evidence police seized from two recent busts. There’s so much of it, the counterfeit merchandise has its own storage area at the police department. If the fake designer perfumes, bags, wallets, coats, boots, and hats were authentic – they would be worth more than half a million dollars.

“Almost any product that has a trademark can be counterfeit,” Sweeney said.

Sweeney launched one investigation after she saw counterfeit items displayed at a yard sale.

“So it wasn’t hard to actually catch him!” she said with a smile. “I’m not going to drive by a yard sale that has counterfeit merchandise, especially the amount that we saw, and let that be OK. It’s not.”

What happens to the fakes that are seized by police?

Some counterfeit items are actually decent quality, but Target 12 has learned that once they’re seized, they’ll never end up in consumers’ hands.

“They are destroyed,” said Sweeney. “The company that we use for their expert opinion to, say, certify through an affidavit that they are counterfeit, they have to bring paperwork to the courts to certify that it is gone.”

“The sad part of that,” she added, “If they didn’t put the trademark on some of these products, like the coats and the shoes, those products could have gone to someone in need. But now, these good coats or boots are being destroyed. So victimless crime? I don’t think so.”

How to spot a fake

Neither Sweeney nor Zarrella would tell Target 12 exactly how police spot fakes and build cases against people who sell counterfeit merchandise, but they said common sense can help consumers determine if a trademarked item is real or fake.

“Trademark items are not sold on someone’s front lawn,” Sweeney said. “Trademark items are not sold in someone’s vehicle or on the side of the road or at someone’s house. When prices are too good to be true, then they’re usually counterfeit.”

Under Rhode Island state law, if a person is caught with more than $5,000 worth of counterfeit merchandise, he or she could face felony charges.

Police tell Target 12 they often receive tips about the sale of counterfeit goods. Consumers can also file online complaints against retailers who may be selling fakes.

Susan Campbell (scampbell@wpri.com) is the Call 12 for Action and Target 12 consumer investigator for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.