Authorities still unable to bag army of knockoff vendors

BY ALINE REYNOLDS  |  On a recent weekday afternoon, about 30 men displaying counterfeit handbags, watches and other illicit merchandise lined Canal Street between Mercer Street and Broadway. As pedestrians passed, some of the vendors gestured to pocket-sized catalogues, featuring photos of the knockoff goods, while others whispered, “Gucci,” “Louis Vuitton” or simply “handbag.”

One of them succeeded in hooking Calvin Morley, 18, of Bradenton, Florida.

“They were trying to sell us G-Shock watches, which are normally about $120 new. I bought this one off a guy for $20,” Morley said as he pointed to the new watch on his wrist.

Psyched about his purchase, Morley sought out another watch from a different vendor.

“He was sketchy about it — he was about to open his briefcase, and then he said, ‘Hold on, the cops are coming.’ I didn’t end up getting it,” Morley noted.

Thanks to Morley and scores of other Canal Street shoppers like him, selling illegal, counterfiet merchandise is a $23 billion industry in New York City, according to the International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition. The organization says research shows this money “often supports organized crime, drug trafficking, child labor and terrorist activity.”

With the passing of yet another tourist-packed holiday season Downtown, the black market trade in fake designer goods is continuing to thrive.

Local residents, meanwhile, are growing increasingly fed up with the congestion the illegal business is causing on their streets. The illicit activity on Canal Street, in particular, is more prevalent than ever, some say, despite stepped-up enforcement by local police precincts.

“It’s been a zoo. They’re everywhere,” said Paul Cantor, a Lispenard Street resident and Community Board 1 member, who often has to contend with car traffic along Canal Street when the sidewalk is inundated with vendors, forcing him off the pavement to walk in the gutter.

“I don’t see any reason why I should walk in the street to try to get home,” he complained.

“We’re unable to enter our doorway at certain times because there are counterfeit peddlers encroaching on our property, trying to take over our threshold,” said David Kapp, the co-op president at 305 Canal Street. “These are not people that respect the fact that we live there — because there is so little enforcement by the NYPD”

The police, however, contend they have increased enforcement. In spring 2010, the Police Department launched a Canal Street initiative to crack down more forcefully on the criminal sales.

One approach the department has explored is having more eyes on the street to catch the vendors in the act. This is needed because mere possession of the goods isn’t a crime, unless the vendors have warehouses full of them, according to Sergeant Gregory LeRoy, a member of the Manhattan South Peddlers Task Force.

“I’d say between the First and Fifth precincts, there is a continuous presence down there at all times,” LeRoy said.

Another strategy is the collaboration with brand-name companies to identify the knockoff merchandise, since the sale of imitation goods is allowed so long as they aren’t direct knockoffs. Merchandise is considered illegal when there is an actual logo signifying a specific brand.

“When we’re looking to do certain enforcements, companies would come with us Downtown and do undercover purchasing to identify merchandise,” LeRoy explained. “The goal for their own company is to see how counterfeit manufacturers are reproducing their products. They also train us on how to identify the real accessories compared to the counterfeits.”

But these enforcement tactics only go so far. While officers have handcuffed 2,764 sidewalk vendors since the Canal Street initiative began, 85 percent of the arrests led only to misdemeanor charges, according to NYPD statistics.

“The charges are not sticking in court, and the vendors often get a small amount of community service,” LeRoy noted of the penalties. “No repeat offenders are being put in jail. You arrest them one day, and they’ll be out the next day.”

City Councilmember Maragaret Chin believes that to successfully tackle the problem the city needs to target demand by educating and even penalizing the purchasers. She introduced a bill in the Council last year that, if passed, would fine buyers up to $1,000 and sentence them to up to a year in jail.

“This is really the smart and cost-effective way to lessen the demand,” Chin said of her bill. “It gives officers another tool when they see this kind of activity going on.”

However, Councilmember Peter Vallone Jr., who chairs the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, has reservations about the proposal. He nevertheless plans to schedule a hearing for the bill in the early spring.

“I agree with her that this is a serious problem and that we need to do some oversight on this topic,” Vallone said of Chin’s bill. “But as a former prosecutor, I can tell you it would be a very, very difficult law to enforce. You would need proof beyond reasonable doubt, and I’m not sure that’s the best use of our undercover officers in New York City.

“It seems easy enough to make arrests of the sellers based on what’s going on,” Vallone added.

Both Cantor and Kapp support Chin’s bill and believe it could lessen the demand for fake merchandise. Kapp said he often sees Canal Street vendors getting away with the sales by playing “cat and mouse” with the cops.

“The cops swing by, the knockoff guys fold up the blankets, and then they stand there,” Kapp said. “The cops go down the street, the vendors open up the blankets, and they put them back out on the sidewalk.”

For now, though, shoppers can continue to buy phony merchandise without any penalty — just like Alex Vasquez from Essex County, NJ, was doing the other day.

“I bought some colognes, some earrings and a chain for a total of $80,” Vasquez said. Asked about the counterfeit activity, he said, “I’m guessing if it’s going on, someone must have noticed and is allowing it.”