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Criminalizing The Sale Of Fake Handbags and Buyers at Risk

Does Criminalizing The Sale Of Fake Handbags Place Buyers in NYC At Risk?

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From thousand dollar Chanel handbags to million dollar Rolex watches, counterfeit goods sold on Chinatown’s Canal street  in New York City replicate the look of luxury products that are nowhere near the quality, but a whole lot less in price. Canal Street became a destination for counterfeit products in the early 1980s. Since then these products have been smuggled into the United States in container ships and manifested as innocuous items such as picture frames and Fidget Spinners. For the last three decades, Chinatown has become the Capital of Counterfeits attracting buyers from all around the United States and tourists from around the globe.

Chinatown Raids and Busts - The Counterfeit Triangle

Closed Stores in Chinatown In 2008, under the command of Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, New York City investigators invaded multiple storefronts on a triangular block in Chinatown. The major seizing of goods included counterfeit Rolex, Prada, Gucci, Chanel, Coach and other brands that estimated to a street value of $1 million dollars. The Bloomberg administration raided 32 stores, and 967 people were arrested for trademark counterfeiting. In a news release, officials referred to Canal, Walker, and Centre Streets as a "Counterfeit Triangle" that defied the law and allegedly lowered the quality of life in the area. As a part of the two month long investigation, 43 undercover purchases were made in various storefronts within the triangle.

Similar raids took place in 2012 as investigators went undercover in New York City's Chinatown to unveil the truth behind the fake merchandise market. According to the Department of Homeland Security, approximately 500 million counterfeit handbags, wallets, belts, and other accessories were confiscated from the infamous Canal Street . The NYPD also raided a Queens warehouse in 2014 seizing over $2.2 million dollars worth of goods in a seven month long "Operation Treasure Hunt. Just hours after Mayor Bloomberg shut down an entire block on Chinatown, the Daily News had little trouble finding cheap knockoffs a block away. Unfortunately, the city's effort to crackdown on counterfeit goods hasn't stopped Chinatown's notorious trade pirates from hawking fakes, it has only made the search for replica goods on Canal street a whole lot harder and now somewhat more dangerous for buyers.

How Does Criminalizing Counterfeit Handbags Place Women Buyers at Risk?

As lawmakers seek to crack down on the sale of counterfeit goods, black marketers have adjusted their approach and tactics. Paranoid sellers now have a network of lookouts on the watch for police presence and suspicious activity. Typically, buyers on Canal Street will be approached by a scout shouting or whispering "Chanel", "Gucci", "Prada". They are then guided to a designated location where they are shown "merchandise menus", laminated pamphlets that display tiny photos of the replica goods. The buyers choices are then signaled to another vendor usually through a walkie talkie, much like a drug deal. Moments later, a different vendor appears with the buyers selection and the transaction is made on the street. In other instances, scouts will ask the buyer to follow them into a disclosed location. A backroom, a van, or even a nearby apartment are common points of sale. For a woman shopping alone, walking into a back room or a van of some sort may impose a great risk. Reminiscent of the movie scene in Silence of the Lambs when Catherine Martin is abducted after entering a van, fake handbag sales now seem to be going in that direction. The idea of going down into basement locked rooms can be alarming to anyone. In reality, it is a risky decision and just a matter of time before something goes awfully wrong.

Shopping with a partner or in groups as a measure of safety, is always a good idea, but the whole process brings up a valid point of whether NYC’s policy of going after fake handbag sales is going to lead to danger and possible injury to a buyer, being forced to go into an unfamiliar environment where they maye be robbed or even killed. Scant evidence exists that the busting of the fake handbag sales operations on Canal Street actually makes any difference to the bottom line of the revenue of the genuine manufacturers and its may be that the Mayor is just paying lip service to the genuine handbag manufacturers on Madison Avenue.

Chin's Bill: Criminalizing The Purchase

Buyers Will be Prosecuted While there have been a few small victories in the battle against counterfeit goods such as the 2008 and 2012 Canal Street police raids, the illegal trade of fake goods is still alive and well. Until now, law officials have focused on catching sellers, landlords, and kingpins, but the city council believes it is time to turn their focus to the buyer. They propose If caught purchasing counterfeit goods, the buyer could be charged with a Class A misdemeanor. Some Class A misdemeanor charges include sexual abuse, criminal impersonation, and identity theft. The individual could then face a fine of up to $1,000 dollars, up to a year in prison or both. This seems overly harsh for something that is somewhat innocuous. No one is actually getting cheated out of anything and to attach a misdemeanor to someone's criminal record for this act is bizarre.

The Councilwoman who introduced the bill, Margaret Chin claims that counterfeits deprive the city of at least $1 billion dollars in tax revenue each year. Chin stated "This bill will stop shoppers from coming here specifically to purchase these counterfeit goods They will experience what Chinatown really has to offer. If they want a bargain, there are a lot of places in the city where they can purchase a designer bag for an affordable price. I go to these places."

An alternative approach could be to debunk the notion that purchasing counterfeit goods is a victimless crime. This might be a creative approach in dealing with Chinatown's vending issues, but the implications of arresting tourists purchasing handbags in Chinatown may be too much for the city to handle and will kill tourism in a New York minute. A Chinatown shopkeeper stated in regards to counterfeit goods "They're coming here for this, this is the main attraction. No Counterfeit, No Tourists, No Money." The bill was subject to hearing before the council's public safety committee and options varied as to whether the penalizations would be an appropriate method of ceasing illegal trade. Margaret Chin will likely have to move on to her next venture, criminalizing the consumption on Chinese food in Chinatown and then the area will have nothing left to offer.

So should buying counterfeit goods be considered acceptable by the law?

First and foremost, the idea of arresting or fining tourists for buying counterfeit goods is not an attractive proposition for tourism and will ultimately keep buyers away from Chinatown. Second, law officials and judges would need to distinguish between consumers who knew they were buying counterfeits and those who thought they were buying the real thing. Finally, the NYPD is stretched thin with other real major urgencies such as terrorism, murder and drugs so placing police forces on Canal Street to arrest a middle-aged woman purchasing a knockoff handbag for her daughter back in Idaho seems a bit ridiculous.