The Devil Wears Prada – Criminals Involved in Fake Goods Are Often Involved in Human Trafficking

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On January 11, 2010, National Human Trafficking Awareness Month was launched across the U.S. Human trafficking involves horrible mistreatment of children, with some abuses too difficult to even speak of, much less imagine. Did you ever wonder who makes those “cheap” GUCCI knockoffs? Those DKNY items on street corners? Many of them may well have involved child labor, some of them akin to slavery.

I recently chatted with a friend who is deeply involved in raising awareness of human trafficking. I offered to share how intellectual property theft is tied to human trafficking by sophisticated criminals. My goal is for this piece to forever serve as a reminder to those of us who have been tempted to buy those inexpensive, counterfeit luxury handbags or watches. We are all aware of the issue, but until more informed, tend to think in terms of the big brand owner who is upset about loss of rights and profits. “So what’s the big deal?” Read this, and I hope you will think again before you buy.

I am an Intellectual Property attorney who has worked passionately in the field of trademark and copyright law for many years. Even I was completely sobered and sickened by a story I heard at a U.S. Trademark Office program here in Santa Monica a few years back. An American attorney based in Thailand spoke of his law firm’s involvement in verifying fake goods seized by Thai custom officials. This type of cooperation is a rather recent side cooperative effort, resulting more from terrorist concerns since 9/11 than a real concern about protecting luxury goods trademark owners. Discovery of the fake goods is a rather random event, since custom officials are routinely bribed to “look the other way.”

Imagine a horrible, unsafe, and unsanitary warehouse containing $20 million in state-of- the-art cigarette manufacturing equipment used to make fake cigarettes. Imagine criminals who have recruited unsuspecting youngsters to travel from China and beyond to “job fairs” seeking a better life. The innocent girls are sold into sexual slavery, and young men are chained to machines like the one in the cigarette plant, forced to do the work of criminal enterprise. In this case, a raid of the plant found the owners long gone, tipped off in advance by custom officials in Bangkok. All that remained were the young male teenagers, chained to the machines to which they were slaves.

A 2004 Time magazine post on the issue of fake bags pointed out the profit motive:

The machines that companies use as legitimate manufacturers are also available to the bad guys,” says Timothy Trainer, president of the International AntiCounterfeiting Coalition. The factories disguise the contents of containers with foodstuffs or other consumer products like lingerie. For those brave enough to risk it, it’s a spectacular investment, with as much as a 1,000% return-better than drug trafficking. A 40-ft. container filled with fake bags can turn a profit of $2 million to $4 million. And counterfeiters save the roughly 50% of that revenue that luxury houses would invest in innovation and marketing.

A June 2009 piece by Gary Jones appearing in Time brings home the reality of the enormity of the problem with a view of the Bangkok Museum of Counterfeit goods.

Clemence Gautier, a Bangkok attorney with Tilleke & Gibbins explains:

“People think, ‘Oh, it’s just a T shirt and it’s no real harm,’ but we try to explain where the money is going. What if a 10-year-old girl is working every day to make those T shirts?”

The writer’s own shame, like mine, and I hope yours, is inevitable once we acknowledge and understand the why and how such cheap prices come about. Counterfeit trademark goods involve large scale criminal activity, preying upon the most innocent of humanity to reap billions in profits. Please share this with others to spread the word. Together we can make a difference.

write by Mazhar Qureshi

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