'Not a victimless crime': How customs officers screen for counterfeits at O'Hare
Known as the nation's second busiest passenger airport, O'Hare International also ranks 11th in the world for cargo.
But lurking in boxes and crates from across the globe are thousands of impostors: shady Chanels, rip-off Rolexes and bogus Burburrys.
Working hard to intercept the fakes are U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers -- the Sherlock Holmes of the International Mail Facility near O'Hare, which processes deliveries for the entire Midwest.
Counterfeiting merchandise "is not a victimless crime," Chicago's acting Area Port Director Mike Pfeiffer said.
Sellers "are only interested in what they can do to make a profit, not the impact to U.S. jobs or the safety risks to potential buyers."
In fiscal year 2022, authorities made $23 million in seizures in the Chicago port area alone.
"Three-quarters of a million jobs are lost every year due to counterfeit goods manufactured overseas," Pfeiffer noted.
During a briefing last week coinciding with the start of holiday shopping, CBP Chief Supervisory Officer Tim Borden gestured at a table covered with phony luxury brands such as Gucci and Louis Vuitton.
"Most of this comes from Thailand," he said. "So there's possible child labor violations or forced labor violations. Thinking globally, the proceeds ... could be going to transnational criminal organizations, or worse, we have documented cases where it's funding terrorism."
With millions of shipments pouring into O'Hare, how do officers detect counterfeits?
Staff use X-rays and know-how from previous seizures, Assistant Port Director Hans Leiterman said.
An experienced officer will spot a hoax from 20 feet away and think: "That box is coming from Thailand. I've seen that box before. I'm going to open it up," Leiterman explained.
Authorities also displayed a cache of fake lidocaine, among numerous counterfeit medications intercepted recently.
"This can be a serious public health issue," Borden said, particularly if medications come from unregulated international suppliers.
And besides the health and economic implications, who wants to make the fashion faux pas of being outed with a knockoff Vuitton?
"It's not leather, it's pleather," Borden said, holding up a not-Vuitton backpack. The real thing costs about $2,700 while counterfeit versions retail for much less. "Sometimes they'll put cardboard in it to make it seem more durable."
Pfeiffer added: "If it seems too good to be true, it probably is."
So what's a consumer to do? Here's what CBP advises.
• Buy products directly from the trademark holder or from authorized retailers.
• When online, check seller reviews and be sure there's a working U.S. phone number and an address.
• Know the retail value of a luxury item and don't fall for $100 Rolexes that typically sell for thousands.
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