Authorities say counterfeit product sales are a $600 billion-a-year worldwide business, run by unscrupulous businesspeople and criminals.
Federal agents in Buffalo took some small steps toward attacking the problem this week, with raids on city delicatessens that have allegedly been selling counterfeit athletic shoes, boots and athletic wear.
Customs and immigration agents from the Homeland Security Department seized a truckload of merchandise and company records Wednesday after conducting court-authorized searches of nine small stores throughout the city.
The names and locations of the stores were not released. No arrests were made, but authorities said they are examining the seized items and criminal charges could come later.
Rick Dehlinger, the longtime owner of Rick's Sports Apparel on Allen Street, said the apparent crackdown is long overdue.
"For a businessman like me, who is doing things by the book, it's a serious problem, especially with counterfeit Nike athletic shoes and Timberland boots," Dehlinger said Thursday.
"I'm losing customers to little food shops that are selling counterfeit goods. I've lost 30 percent of my business in the last 18 months."
In some Buffalo delicatessens, teenagers can buy a pair of counterfeit Nike Retro Air Jordan sneakers for $75 or $100, tax included, Dehlinger said. Some of the stores also sell illegal "knockoff" versions of boots, football jerseys, baseball caps and other sports items.
"I'm an authorized retailer of brand-name athletic footwear, caps and apparel," Dehlinger said. "I sell the authentic Retro Air Jordans for $100 to $150. These other stores buy the knockoffs a lot cheaper than my cost. . . . It's an unfair playing field."
According to the Washington-based International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition, the Buffalo situation is one minuscule facet of a worldwide problem. The business organization said the wide range of counterfeit products available worldwide also includes items such as automobile parts, computer software, clothing, jewelry, medicines and electronics.
"Counterfeit goods account for 7 percent of all global trade, a $600 billion-a-year worldwide business," estimated Michelle R. Moore, spokeswoman for the organization. "It has cost us 750,000 American jobs."
The counterfeiters are stealing trademarked intellectual properties that companies worked for years to develop, she said, and in many cases, the bootleg products are inferior and sometimes dangerous.
"A lot of people think that buying these products is a victimless crime. Who am I hurting?" Moore said. "But a lot of these products are sold by criminal organizations, and a lot of the companies that make them exploit children. It's a problem that hurts everyone."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy C. Lynch said he could not comment on whether Wednesday's raids would result in any arrests.
"The investigation is ongoing," Lynch said.