The Trump White House has said lots about fake news these past three years. Now it’s going after fake products — counterfeit goods, usually from China — that pretend to be high-priced originals.
I started investigating these knockoff goods nearly 10 years ago, and I have some stories to tell. Like the time I got an e-mail from a reader telling me to stop picking on these products because poor people like nice things, too.
I once purchased four pocketbooks on a Manhattan street corner to see what they were like. The handbag I gave to one of our office assistants broke in a matter of days.
I brought another one home and placed it on a leather table. It left a stain!
With those stories still fresh in my head years later, I think it was great when Peter Navarro, the White House trade negotiator, said in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece last week that “Alibaba, Amazon and eBay face virtually no liability when they act as middlemen for counterfeiters.”
The Trump administration says retailers — online and traditional — have not done enough to stop counterfeiters. “The problem is,” Navarro said, “for all intents and purposes, these e-commerce hubs are basically laundries for counterfeiting.”
Navarro is leading Trump’s trade negotiations with China. The two sides recently announced what is being described as the first stage of an agreement that will prevent tariffs from rising further, and lead to fair trading between the countries.
The second stage, whenever that occurs, has to include closer watch on these counterfeit goods.
It’s not such a big deal when a pocketbook pretending to be a Coach brand suddenly falls apart in a person’s hands. It is big when China is producing fake drugs and shipping them to the US and elsewhere.
I looked back through my old columns and realized that I’ve been fighting this battle since March 2011, when I enlisted the help of a spy who went around the city to find counterfeit goods. And I’m not talking about those guys on the street corners who are obviously peddling fakes. I’m talking about the warehouses where the guys on the corner get their inventory.
Here’s a few lines from that 2011 column: “How’d you like to buy a truckload of Nike Air Jordans? Not your style — well, what about a few thousand handbags? We can get you Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Coach or just about any other ritzy brand.”
Back then I was teaming up with a Middle Eastern guy who was working undercover for authorities on other things.
I asked him to look for fakes and fitted him with a spy camera.
What we learned was astounding. For one thing, there was a warehouse in Queens that was full of fakes, including knockoffs of high-priced athletic shoes. The tip was — and we never could confirm this — that the warehouse owners were supplying free sneakers to kids playing in leagues formed by the Police Athletic League.
(I offered to go undercover myself, but I was told I didn’t fit the part and would be spotted immediately. And English isn’t the language that’s spoken in these places.)
Nobody seemed to care, except the makers of the real products that were being knocked off, and whose intellectual property was being stolen.
The real manufacturers held press conferences on the subject, but they could never get the authorities to act.
That’s why Navarro’s comments were so welcomed by people who make real quality goods.
In 2018 I wrote, “A lot of Chinese trade coming into the US is related to counterfeit goods of all kinds. If the Trump administration wants to cut down on the trade deficit with China, it can start with these fake goods. But don’t count on this ever happening.”
Well, maybe I was wrong. Maybe it really will happen.
The most recent piece I did on this subject was last year, when I was tipped to the fact that the Chinese were shipping fake Juul pods into the US. Vaping has become a big issue over the past few years, with health concerns rising exponentially.
The fact that these fake Chinese pods can contain much more harmful stuff than the real Juul pods is very worrisome. Still, nobody cared enough to ask me to ask my source who was smuggling this poison into the country.
I’m going to let you in on another secret: Not all fakes are equal.
The manufacturers of luxury goods probably won’t admit this (and may not even know), but the gossip around the counterfeit products industry has always been that some of the stuff you see on the street corners or being sold in Chinatown is sort of real.
What do I mean by that?
Rumor has it that some of the stuff being sold cheaply around the country are really overruns of the legitimate product. For instance, a factory in China is producing a very expensive handbag and the operators of the place decide to run off an extra hundred of the bags so they can be sold on the black market.
No need to actually reinvent the product in another factory. Just keep workers going for a little longer off the books.
So there you have it. If Navarro is telling the truth, another evil in American society will be attacked. And it’s none too soon.