A Journey Through Chinatown

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Catching Counterfeiters, a Real Cat-and-Mouse Game

Published: July 15, 2011. New York Times. [link]

The salesman found a bit of shade on the corner of Hester and Baxter Streets in Chinatown and waited. Not for long. A young woman approached, and he pulled a dog-eared pamphlet from the pocket of his cargo shorts.

Inside the pamphlet were rows and rows of photographs of counterfeit Coach, Gucci, Louis Vuitton and other expensive purses.

Of course, there are precious few New Yorkers who would be shocked shocked! to read that one can buy a counterfeit purse in Chinatown. But lately the game has changed. The purse trade has dispersed from the traditional back rooms of Canal Street, their once-secret doors more like revolving doors for tourists.

The new Canal Street is not even on Canal Street. Stand on Hester and watch the guy with the pamphlet.

After the woman asked a few questions and pointed at a few pictures, the man dialed his phone and spoke into the hands-free device attached to his ear. He pointed for the woman to wait several feet away, near another woman in a business suit and a tourist family from Europe with three school-age children. ''Don't stand together,'' the man said to the first woman. ''Too many people, the police are going to come.''

An older man appeared, carrying a plastic bag. Inside was a purse. The first man gave the older man some of the money the woman had given him, and the older man quickly walked away.

Watch him as he turns onto Mulberry Street and enters an apartment building. Watch the building: Ten minutes later, he was walking back out, with another purse.

If the technique looks familiar, it should. ''It's like drug dealers,'' said Inspector Gin Yee, commanding officer of the Fifth Precinct, which shares counterfeit purse headaches with the neighboring First Precinct.

The new Canal Street presents a challenge to the police of their own making. Several of the old storefronts have been closed down in nuisance-abatement campaigns by the city, driving the sellers elsewhere.

''They change mouseholes,'' said William P. Ryan, a retired New York City police detective who is the director of Allegiance Protection Group, which investigates Chinatown counterfeiting on behalf of the manufacturers of genuine handbags. For a while, the purses were stored in parked vans, but when the vans were seized by the authorities, along with the purses, word got out, and that practice grew rarer. Now, the purses have moved upstairs, as if floating, into rooms or closets, rented from, for example, an old couple pleased to have the cash.

Mr. Ryan's face is familiar in the neighborhood too familiar, and easily spotted by lookouts for bag sellers. So he works with teams of anonymous men and women who blend in and watch, a mounting game of spy-versus-spy.

On a recent afternoon, Mr. Ryan walked out of a restaurant and waved to two women across the street, who quickly left. Lookouts. ''I want them to see me,'' he said. ''While they're looking at me, they're not looking at other people.'' He falls back on everyday police strategies when he is in Chinatown, encouraging counterfeit crews to work against one another.

''Everybody rats on everybody,'' he said. ''I tell them like I used to tell drug dealers: 'Don't give me your friends. Give me your enemies.' Chinese rat on the Vietnamese. Vietnamese rat on the Koreans.''

Proving his point, his cellphone rings constantly, often a tipster whispering an apartment number into his ear.

Tips like that led him to 28 Forsythe Street two weeks ago, an off-the-beaten-path building opposite the Manhattan Bridge. He sat in a parked minivan looking for obvious signs of purse traffic, but seeing none, widened his surveillance in the days ahead. He and his team saw a salesman meeting tourists as far away as Canal and Broadway and walking them more than 10 blocks to Forsythe. Mr. Ryan sent undercover employees posing as buyers, and learned the stash of purses was down the main hall, through a door, down stairs to a basement and through more doors.

He and police officers entered the room on July 8 and saw why the long walk was worth it. Hundreds of relatively high-quality imitations lined every inch of shelves. Three men were charged with felony-level trademark counterfeiting, a more serious charge than the misdemeanors doled out to the guys with the catalogs on the corner.

That guy on Hester was surprised when I approached and asked him about his Mulberry Street storage space. He denied he had a partner until I described the older man. ''I call the people, the people bring the bag,'' said the 35-year-old man, who did not give a name. ''I make like six or seven dollars.''

He saw his work, in which he sells imitations for a fraction of the price of the real thing, as something of a public service for people who are not rich. ''If they have money,'' he said, ''they buy the real ones.''

That victimless-crime justification has long rankled Mr. Ryan. ''They're paying their taxes,'' he said of the big purse companies. ''Aren't they entitled to some protection? It's O.K. to rob rich people and not poor people?''

Involved in a crime?

E-mail: crimescene@nytimes.com.


Copyright 2011 The New York Times Company

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