U.S. News

Officials Seize Counterfeit Holiday Goods and Make Numerous Arrests

Stephanie Clifford|The New York Times

While counterfeiters are well known for cashing in during the holidays on high-price items like fake Chanel bags, this year they have put more energy into the lower end — expanding into Christmas lights, plastic Angry Birds toys and National Football League jerseys.

It is a bleak economy

Counterfeit Barbie
Photo: Yves Forestier | Getty Images

, even when it is a counterfeit economy.

“They’re keeping up with the times,” said John Morton, the director of United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which plans to announce Thursday that recently it has seized about 327,000 counterfeit items worth about $77 million in the United States, along with some merchandise from Mexico.

Thirty-three people were arrested — 30 arrests in the United States and three in South Korea — and charged with counterfeit-goods trafficking, the authorities said.

“People tend to focus on luxury goods and DVDs, and that really understates the problem,” Mr. Morton said. “We live in an age where literally everything, from medicine to air bags to circuit boards, are being counterfeited.”

The fake products are keeping up with demand: Angry Birds toys, for instance, became available only this year and are already being copied widely. Also being copied are popular True Religion jeans.

For buyers of Christmas lights, the counterfeiters have even copied the Underwriters Laboratories trademark, which people associate with safe products. But the seized lights are not safe, Mr. Morton said. They have undersize wires and lack replaceable fuses integrated into the plug.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the wires in such cases can overheat and start fires.

The safety problems of the seized goods extend well beyond Christmas lights, Mr. Morton said.

“Counterfeit batteries are going to explode, a counterfeit electrical cord might catch fire and burn the house down,” he said. “Toys are always a concern. You never know what’s going into the actual manufacturing in terms of the chemicals. Obviously you don’t know whether they have been tested in terms of, are they safe for toddlers.”

How do you know if you are buying a counterfeit item? A giveaway, customs officials say, is the packaging. Misspellings and bad grammar are common on packages and instructions. Also, obvious poor quality — like uneven stitching — should raise suspicions.

The current round of investigations focused on items sold in 66 American and 55 Mexican cities as well as items crossing the border. The items were confiscated from small retailers, swap meets, flea markets, ports and warehouses.

“We want legitimate commerce to prosper between both our nations,” said Alfredo Gutiérrez, director of the Tax Administration Service of Mexico.

The Obama administration has had “an increased focus on counterfeiting and piracy,” Mr. Morton said. The number of seizures of counterfeit goods rose 34 percent in 2010 from 2009, to about 19,960. (A big operation includes several seizures — this one, called Operation Holiday Hoax II, included 170 seizures.)

“We’re trying to create a safe and lawful environment around the holiday shopping season,” Mr. Morton said. Counterfeiters “don’t pay taxes and customs duties, they don’t tend to pay health care, they don’t tend to invest in the next great product.”

“In a time of great economic distress in many countries, including our own, we need to make sure that we are protecting innovation, jobs, revenue,” he said.