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Counterfeiting: Is the Fake Purse on Your Shoulder Illegal?

Knockoff merchandise is a big business everywhere

On April 1, the State Highway Patrol stopped a 2002 Cadillac for a lane violation on the Ohio Turnpike and found something unexpected in the car.

Not heroin or cocaine.

No, troopers found 81 purses. And a bunch of belts and wallets and sunglasses and other "designer" items valued at $50,000.

It was all counterfeit. The two occupants of the car admitted they had bought the merchandise in New York and were planning to sell it in Chicago.

Troopers seized 19 wallets, 13 belts, 21 pair of sunglasses, 12 pairs of jeans and 88 Coach labels. The merchandise included designer brands like Louis Vuitton, Michael Kors, Gucci, Chanel, Sorrentino, Tory Burch and Dooney and Bourke. 

The driver, Courtney Shelby, 26, and passenger, Steven McGee, 35, both of Chicago, were jailed and charged with trademark counterfeiting, a fifth-degree felony.

If convicted, each could face up to one year in prison and a $2,500 fine.

It's Everywhere

Strongsville police have tackled the counterfeit issue in the past, but not lately.

The law gets a little tricky when it comes to knockoffs. Does the shopper know she's buying a fake? And does the item look exactly like the original? With a label? 

"It depends on if they're selling it as a Coach purse or if they're just trying to make it look like a Coach purse," Detective Lt. John Janowski said.

There's a fine line between exact duplication and a "creative interpretation," according to the website branddesign.com. There's also a differenct between selling an item with the intention of fooling the customer and selling a knockoff with subtle differences.

Some Coach purse knockoffs actually substitute the trademark "C" design with a "G," for example.

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, counterfeit goods encompass "all products made to closely imitate the appearance of the product of another as to mislead consumers."

So if a kiosk at sells purses that look similar to designer bags, that's probably not a crime.

Back in 2004, though, Strongsville police did raid the Oriental Boutique kiosk at the mall and confiscated a number of purses.

In that case, even though shoppers knew they weren't buying originals, the seller was stealing original copyrighted designs.

Fake Airplane Parts?

According to the Washington, D.C.-based International AntiCounterfeiting Coalition, a nonprofit agency devoted to stamping out trademark infringement, the problem extends way beyond simple clothing and accessories.

Safety issues come into play when the counterfeit items are auto parts, software, food and pharmaceuticals, the agency says. 

There is no way to regulate the production of the items, so there's no way to know what's in that knockoff cologne you're spraying on yourself in the morning.

In addition, consumers ultimately pay the price when companies lose money to counterfeiters, or spend thousands trying to fight the copyright infringements.

It's not illegal, by the way, to own a counterfeit product -- only to sell one.

Janowski said if Strongsville police get a complaint about counterfeit merchandise, they would probably call in an expert to help handle the situation.

"There are experts out there who do this all the time," he said.

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