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Shoppers, and Police, Flock to the Alley Looking for Fakes

Times Staff Writer

Beyond the glitz of the new downtown Los Angeles -- the shiny high rises and trendy lofts -- the pulse of an older, shadier downtown continues to beat.

Shoppers in search of name brands meet sellers willing to provide them with loot -- much of it counterfeit. Powered by the thrill of a deal, they pour every day onto the streets of downtown’s fashion district, especially around Santee Alley.

They’re people like Sara Semingson, 38, who flies to Los Angeles from Seattle every three months to load up on fake handbags. On Friday, she carried a (fake) Dior bag she had picked up along the alley for just a fraction of what the real thing would cost. Inside was a Louis Vuitton wallet with a similar provenance. The district, she said, “is awesome. I buy whatever looks real.”

For those who hunger for name brands they can’t afford -- or don’t want to pay for -- this pocket of the fashion district has become a mecca. Counterfeit goods, including DVDs, sunglasses, even cigarettes and toys, are for sale for a fraction of a price of the real thing.

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“People know that this is the area to come to to buy knockoffs,” Los Angeles Police Sgt. R.J. Acosta said.

But police say those counterfeit goods come at a cost.

In the last few years, said Acosta, who oversees the Los Angeles Police Department’s Central Division vice squad, downtown Los Angeles has become the nation’s second counterfeit capital -- after Canal Street in New York City. And LAPD, he said, has begun finding connections between those fake goods and organized crime.

Since early 2003, police have seized nearly $40 million in counterfeit merchandise in 40 raids. And to keep an eye on the problem, they’re in the process of installing 10 surveillance cameras donated by the Motion Picture Assn. of America, which hopes to crack down on counterfeit DVDs.

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This week, in what they say is their largest raid to date, police raided one store on South Los Angeles Street near 11th Street and seized counterfeit handbags, glasses, belts and other accessories. If the merchandise had been real, authorities said, it would be worth about $18 million.

Known Worldwide

Santee Alley got its start in the 1970s, when the wholesalers along Maple and Santee streets started selling products out of the backs of their showrooms on weekends. They were so successful that eventually, that back alley became their front door.

Today, the alley is known worldwide as a shopping destination: a place where you can buy everything from turtles and towels to cellphone antennas and suitcases. A newspaper in New Zealand recently touted its bargains. As downtown has boomed, the alley has become even more popular.

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But still, the place is gritty, packed with all kinds of people and merchandise. Rap music blares as sellers hawk their goods. Mobile vendors sell fresh fruit and ice cream, while shoppers try on sunglasses and model knockoff purses. The street looks more like a merchant bazaar in Mexico City or Hong Kong than Los Angeles, with the narrow alley lined with shops that stack merchandise high along their front facades.

Some of the businesses do sell legitimate items. But according to police, the amount of counterfeit merchandise along the alley, and in the stores near by, is staggering.

Few shoppers would speak on the record about their purchases -- saying only that it is a good place to get a deal. Vendors who had been loudly advertising fake purses and wallets had little so say once they knew that a reporter was present.

The decision to install cameras along the alley has focused attention on DVD piracy. In June, police arrested a onetime vendor of mangos who allegedly switched to selling an estimated $500,000 worth of DVDs. But authorities said films are only one type of counterfeiting seen on the alley.

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Investigators had been watching Joi Fashion for nearly a month before they raided the store Thursday. Working with Investigative Consultants, a firm hired by many of the legitimate handbag makers whose merchandise was counterfeited, including Gucci and Chanel, they had purchased counterfeit goods there before the Thursday raid.

Police moved swiftly into the narrow store, serving a search warrant and arresting Jahangir Sinaie, 48, on suspicion of selling counterfeit trademark goods. Sinaie is believed to be the store’s owner.

At the time of the raid, floor-to-ceiling shelves were brimming with handbags, many of them marked with the Chanel, Gucci, Prada or Dior logos.

Boxes Everywhere

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Near the back, cardboard boxes were stacked high -- and police later said that nearly all of them were filled with counterfeit goods, including umbrellas marked with the Louis Vuitton logo and scarves stamped with the Burberry name. Even the file cabinets were brimming with boxes marked with Coach and Luis Vuitton logos, which contained belts wrapped in plastic.

“Take everything that’s got a name-brand trademark violation,” Acosta told the officers and investigators.

As if on cue, a small army of college-age students filed into the store, wearing matching T-shirts. The young people, who worked for Investigative Consultants, grabbed at richly colored bags in a variety of shapes and sizes and tossed them onto piles: One for Marc Jacobs, another for Coach and so on. The piles quickly mounted. Plastic trash bags were filled with merchandise and hauled out to the street.

As they worked, Stephanie Sandler, an in-house attorney for Chanel who accompanied the officers on the raid, grabbed handbags off the shelf, inspecting them inside and out. A tweedy bag in green and pink caught her eye. “I’ve become pretty good at spotting the fakes,” she said, “and how they get around it.”

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Sandler said many of the bags are shipped to the United States from China without any brand markings. Once they arrive here, she said, logos like Chanel’s interlocking Cs often are stamped or affixed onto the bags -- turning them from cheap knockoffs into counterfeit goods.

Later in the evening, Acosta said, police found “thousands of nameplates for various companies, like Gucci, Prada, Coach, Chanel and Burberry hidden away in the bottom of [Sinaie’s] desk.”

Sinaie posted $20,000 bail Thursday night, and by Friday, was back in his store, putting more bags -- albeit without the designer names -- back on his shelves. He refused to comment.

For many years, LAPD Asst. Chief George Gascon said Friday, the public and the Police Department have tacitly accepted the presence of counterfeit goods on Los Angeles’ streets.

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“But we’re seeing the impact of these acts,” he said. “We forget that if you are purchasing this kind of merchandise, you are engaging in a conspiracy of theft” that can extend to organized crime.

Neither those worries nor Sinaie’s arrest fazed Semingson, who carried two black plastic bags over one arm Friday. So far, she said, she’d snagged some Coach bags for a fraction of the real price.

“It’s as real as you’re going to get without paying 500 bucks,” she said. Besides, she added, “It’s fun, and purses are disposable.”


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