I-Team: 5 arrested, $10M seized in counterfeit-goods raid

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by Jeff McShan / 11 News

khou.com

Posted on November 8, 2010 at 11:59 PM

Updated Tuesday, Nov 9 at 8:42 AM

HOUSTON -- Just a few days ago, 11 News was there when -- in the middle of the afternoon -- investigators rushed into three businesses along Harwin Street and shut them down.

When it comes to wholesale shopping, Harwin Street is Houston's "magnificent mile."

From block to block to block, hundreds of stores are open for business, and there are bargains to be had -- even for individual retail shoppers who come here from other states.

You see, Harwin has become a tourist attraction.

But it is also a place where illegal counterfeit goods are sold, and nearly every year, police make surprise visits.

“It robs the creativity of American corporations, and in robbing their creativity you are also depriving the American economy of jobs and revenue,” said Assistant Special Agent in Charge Andre Watson.

Watson is with ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations Department.

He said the sale of counterfeit products often promotes other, more serious criminal enterprises.

Watson said consumers should know that all of the fake products are manufactured in foreign countries. Some of them are made in sweatshops, and some use child labor.

All of the items -- like fake purses, wallets and watches -- are easy to find. And police say they are in high demand.

So how does law enforcement even attempt to stop the overwhelming flow of counterfeit goods coming here?

“First we work very closely with private industry. We work with these American corporations and private investigators to identify individuals, corporations, and, or trans-national criminal organizations that are involved,” Watson said.

The investigations into the selling of fake goods start at the local level, most of the time.

The Houston Police Department's Major Offenders Division is usually the first to receive tips about a place selling illegal products. These are usually solid tips from informants, private investigators or concerned citizens.

The investigations start with sending undercover officers into the businesses to make a purchase. That's what led to the latest arrests on Harwin, and the arrests of eight suspects back in April. They were found inside the Armadillo Flea Market on Airtex.

“Yes, we will send people in, just like shoppers, and they will go in and make the purchase and they will come back and we will get in contact with the companies and they provide experts that can testify that it is counterfeit. There are certain things they look for to determine whether it is a counterfeit product,” said Sgt. Frank Quinn with HPD’s Major Offenders Division.

On the day that 11 News joined law enforcement at the flea market, it became very clear that employees at businesses that weren’t targeted were worried about being arrested, too.

Two women and a man quickly fled as soon as they saw police move in.

Police said they confiscated approximately $5 million worth of fake goods inside the flea market, and thousands of dollars were seized. They said $10 million worth of counterfeit products were confiscated in the recent raid on Harwin.

Most of the stuff was found hidden in back rooms, and it took three trucks to haul all of it away.

But the selling of counterfeit goods continues in Houston and across the nation.

Watson said consumers should stay away from purchasing fake goods, because you could be contributing to terrorism.

“Because you have collusion with criminal organizations that are involved in a broad-band spectrum of activities that relate to trade travel and finance, it is reasonable to conclude that the profits from these activities are used to fund and facilitate other unlawful acts that, once again, threaten the national security of the United States,” said Watson.

Buyers beware.

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