>> Selling altered copies of items that do not claim to be originals is legal. Copied goods dominate grocery stores, for example, with off-brand products looking very similar to brand-name products on the same shelf.
Identity theft (counterfeiting), however, involves selling exact copies of things as originals. The people who profit from identity theft are as happy to sell your credit card information to others as they are to sell you fake prescription drugs or purses.
Identity theft can rob you of your credit rating and worse, it has the potential of robbing you of your life. In addition, illegal profits often underwrite activities that promote wars and murder, which are not the type of behaviors one wants to encourage.
See "FDA Targets an Upsurge in Fake Drugs," Wall Street Journal. 9/11/03
Copies Versus Fakes
The fake designer bags sold on Manhattan's sidewalks are either legal copies or illegal, identity-theft duplicates.
Legal copies, called "inspired," "replica," or "comparable" purses, are similar to the originals, but are not the same. These bags are sold in licensed shops and push-carts throughout the city.
As discussed in Part 2 of this series, an identity theft bag looks so much like the real thing, it is difficult to tell what is real. Sometimes, it's only the point-of-purchase cardboard box or blanket "showcase" that tips you off about the fraud.
See www.MyPoupette.com on how to identify fake bags.
On 9/11, when The World Trade Center was bombed, I rushed to get out of Downtown Manhattan, fearful that the collapsing towers would cause a domino effect, crushing every nearby building.
I was on the corner of Park and Broadway when the first building fell. At the time, police were letting traffic into the area. Cars. Cabs. Trucks. The people in these vehicles became trapped in the black smoke of Broadway moments thereafter.
You, as consumers, need to be aware that you will not always get the best advice as to what your behavior should be, even if law enforcement officials (or lawyers) are around.
Since August, I've been taking photos of identity theft in action. In Battery Park on the evening of the great blackout, for example, there were at least nine cardboard-box or blanket sales-outlets near legal food vendors. (Photo 1)
On August 23, 2003, I bought two, real-but-discounted, designer purses at Century21, which is directly across from Ground Zero on Church Street in Downtown Manhattan.
Imagine my surprise when I stepped out of its Church Street door and saw at least five separate identity theft merchants and their blankets spread out along the entire block! Of course, being a good reporter, I had to ask about prices: LV bags were going for $70 and Kate Spade, $20. (Photos 2, 3 and 4)
I am not sure how fashion-aware New York City police are, but if any of them had stumbled into this scene like I did, they might suspect that at minimum, these vendors did not have city licenses.
Should the New York police care? Should we not be offended by seeing fraudulent activity in front of the World Trade Center pit, where so many people died because of the power laundered money has in promoting terrorism?
The people who profit from identity theft do not play by the same rules as you and I. Their untaxed cash doesn't buy big homes in New Jersey suburbs next to The Sopranos. It is usually funneled out of the country into terrorist activity, dictatorships, and criminal syndicates, with no one the wiser.
On the other hand, it is legal to copy as long as your goods do not look exactly like another's, there are no patent infringements, and you make no claims.
Unfortunately, the Hermes company, maker of exceptionally fine, hand-crafted, leather purses, has gone after anyone who sells day-glow, transparent, rubber purses featuring a remotely similar front flap. (Photo 5)
These funky, rubber purses were sold at our best department stores until late this summer. My understanding is that they were removed from shelves as a courtesy to Hermes, rather than through legal proceedings.
The moral problem for consumers in determining whether to buy a rubber purse is that it is perfectly legal to do so, even though Hermes' legal team is pressuring stores not to sell them.
See a (possibly illegal) copy of the New York Times article on this subject at www.smh.com
So what is a consumer to do when confronted by inspired copies or identity theft? When identity theft purses are sold out of a bag in front of a prestigious location, such as the Guggenheim Art Museum, what might your thoughts on the subject be? (Photo 6)
Are you going to give an identity theft merchant the benefit of a doubt because nearby police have not shut him down? Or are you going to hold on to your cash, thanking god that you are not personally supporting criminal activity?
Of course, should you happen to see police in the area, ask for his (or her) opinion on the subject, taking note of the badge number in case you want to do a little investigation on your own.
Questions or comments?
1 - BATTERY PARK, EVENING OF BLACKOUT
AUGUST 14, 2003
2 - A GROUND ZERO MEMORIAL?
3 - PHOTOS 2, 3 & 4 SNAPPED AT GROUND ZERO,
THE MOST HEAVILY PATROLLED AREA IN THE CITY
4 - A FEW OF THE FIVE ILLEGAL VENDORS
SEEN IN FRONT OF CENTURY 21
AT GROUND ZERO
4:30 PM, AUGUST 23, 2003
5 - HERMES, PRODUCERS OF FINE LEATHER BAGS,
IS TRYING TO SHUT DOWN THE SALE OF
COLORFUL, TRANSPARENT, RUBBER PURSES
WITH A TOP FLAP SIMILAR TO THEIR BIRKIN BAGS
Upper East Side Shop on Madison Avenue
September 8, 2003
6 - IN FRONT OF THE GUGGENHEIM ART MUSEUM
NOON, SEPTEMBER 8, 2003
What happens when your identity is stolen?
The identity theft of individuals costs billions, with about 3.3 million Americans hit per year.
This breaks down to $32.9 billion lost to business and $3.8 billion to consumers themselves.
Another 6.6 million people are victims of account theft, where accounts are opened in their names, causing $14.1 billion in business loses and $1.1 billion to consumers.
Who steals? International rings of criminals. Money funds dictatorships, slavery, gun-running, wars, and terror.
SOURCE: "Identity Theft Victimizes Millions, Costs Billions," by Jennifer Lee, New York Times, Wednesday, 9/4/2003
A copy of a New York Times article
on Hermes and rubber bags is at:
How to tell when a Louis Vuitton bag is a fake.
From a Littleviews' Reader:
Here is a link that discusses the difference between trademark violations and counterfeiting. Note that we do not know whether the bags sold by licensed New York vendors have trademark problems. We do know when illegal identity theft (counterfeiting) is involved, however, and so should the police.
Article on trademark violations and counterfeit issues