Fake designer products likely benefit cartels, other organized crime rings: CBP

ByChuck Goudie and Christine Tressel, Barb Markoff and Ross Weidner WLS logo
Thursday, March 23, 2023
Fake designer goods likely benefit cartels, organized crime rings: CBP
Counterfeit products can be likely traced to organized crime groups, including drug cartels, the Russian mob and the Asian mob, authorities say.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- It's an estimated $3.3 billion problem: that is the total value of fake designer goods seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents.

In the most recent haul in Chicago, knock-off designer purses led the way, flooding U.S. shipping ports along with fancy fake watches, footwear, and bogus electronics - all of it at the expense of legitimate manufacturers.

Organized crime groups are the potential beneficiary of a surging counterfeit goods marketplace, according to authorities.

At O'Hare's international mail facility, CBP officers and a canine corps are constantly on guard as conveyor belts of could-be criminal products come through 24 hours a day.

This week, authorities uncovered shipment containers of more than 350 counterfeit designer products: buckles and buttons; silk scarves, and watches that would cost tens of thousands of dollars--if they were real. It would amount to more than $250,000 in street value had they been genuine merchandise.

"They were both going to individuals, one in Tennessee, and the other one in Texas," said Steve Bansbach with the CBP Chicago Field Office.

CBP officers intercepted the fakes in Chicago before they could be delivered, then likely marked up and sold at a huge profit by criminal racketeers.

According to authorities, the scheme can be likely traced to organized crime groups around the world, including drug cartels, the Russian mob and the Asian mob, Yakuza.

"It could be any of those entities," said Bansbach. "Because we don't know where that money's then going to be filtered to. So it could be going to any of those cartels or any of those crime organizations."

Over the years, U.S. investigators have intercepted fake Super Bowl rings, knockoff eye-wear and electronics-bogus and sometimes dangerous.

"Yes, you know, just recently we had a seizure with Chicago field office, it was clothing that was laced with ketamine," explained Bansbach. "So you're starting to see some of these drug items that come through and are also in the same container. So they're trying to double dip type of thing."

The knock-off goods originated in Thailand this time, but authorities said a third of all fakes come from China. Racketeers in Hong Kong and Turkey are responsible for a quarter of all knock-offs intercepted here.

Investigators said preventing the sale of fake goods is more common than prosecuting customers. And they said when one foreign manufacturer is closed down, three others pop up.