Along for the sting

Times Staff Writer

It's 11:30 a.m. on a Wednesday in October when the deal goes down in a busy Starbucks parking lot in Torrance. The dealer, David, parks his minivan. He's wearing True Religion Super T jeans, a washed-down red T-shirt, flip-flops and a pair of designer sunglasses. There's a Camel cigarette tucked behind his left ear.

David steps inside the Starbucks. He's under heavy surveillance -- by a former L.A. County Sheriff's Department deputy parked several hundred feet away, by a kid in an Oakley T-shirt and cargo shorts at the table behind him, and, most important, by the two teen girls who walk into the coffee shop minutes behind him, all tight jeans and broad smiles, chit-chatting like sorority sisters on a shopping jag.

He recognizes one of the girls, a brunet in a leopard-print blouse, from a previous buy; they give each other the awkward wave of co-conspirators. Coffees are ordered, introductions are made and David adjourns with the girls to the parking lot, where minutes later another minivan eases in behind his. The woman who hops out is wearing designer jeans, a loose-fitting tube top and a pair of mirrored sunglasses that almost cover her face. She sports a pixie cut with frosted highlights. Her name is Anita, and she's got the top-shelf stuff.

A hidden camera records the next 20 minutes. Plastic bags are opened, product is inspected, prices discussed. The girls skip off to the Starbucks restroom to try on the merchandise, giggling at their good fortune. When they return, they give $200 to David and $150 to Anita. They promise to call about a bigger score.

Today's get? The $200 bought an Ed Hardy hooded zip-front sweat shirt in dusty rose and a pair of Ed Hardy dark-wash skinny-leg jeans. The $150 bought a handbag bearing a well-known luxury logo. All three are counterfeit.

As he eases into the Hawthorne Boulevard traffic, private investigator Kris Buckner, the former deputy who's observed the action, says David and Anita weren't the only ones working the lot. "I think there was a fake Armani-suit deal going down at the same time," he says, shaking his head. "Everyone does their business out of Starbucks these days." (At least two of Buckner's cases that began at a Starbucks have been prosecuted.)

Although there's a bill pending in the U.S. Senate that addresses the legality of design piracy (the co-opting of fashion designs currently not covered by existing intellectual property law), counterfeiting -- the unauthorized copying of trademark-protected goods -- has always been against the law. It is, however, big business, and not just when it comes to faux Fendi and second-class Coach; no, the premium denim and sportswear brands clustered in Southern California are being ripped off more than ever before. That's where Buckner and his Lawndale-based company, Investigative Consultants, come in.

Back at his office, Buckner explains that 85 different apparel brands and companies -- including Oakley, True Religion, 7 For All Mankind, Ed Hardy and Rock & Republic -- have at one time or another hired him to build a case against counterfeiters trafficking in their intellectual property. He and his team of six undercovers pursue leads, build cases, meticulously document and compile evidence and take their findings to law enforcement.

To illustrate, Buckner drops a 4-inch-thick binder on his desk. Each page has a photo and a signed cease-and-desist order to stop selling counterfeit goods. "That's just six weeks in Santee Alley," he said. "We need to present it to the cops on a silver platter. They don't want crap cases." He's proud that 99.9% of the cases they take to authorities plead out before trial, and in most cases face community service, probation and/or fines. "And 85% of those plead before the preliminary hearing."

It's like catching a tidal wave with a teaspoon. Buckner's opened 1,400 cases this year alone. Footwear, apparel and handbags accounted for 57% by value of all seizures made by U.S. Customs from Oct. 1, 2006, to March 31, 2007 -- $62.89 million, up more than 200% over the same period a year ago. More than half of that comes in through the ports of L.A. and Long Beach.

The buy at Starbucks was part of a sting Buckner and his crew had set for David and Anita. Remember that kid in the Oakley T-shirt and cargo pants? He's an operative named Victor, and he monitored the buy from inside Starbucks. Buckner hung back in case things went pear-shaped. The real heavy lifters were the girls -- Sammy, a 19-year-old whose full-time job is working retail until she starts classes at FIDM, and Miriam, Buckner's 18-year-old daughter. On a tip from Rock & Republic, Miriam had already scored a pair of bogus R&R; jeans. She now wants to arrange a jeans party.

"It started with purse parties," Buckner says. "Women would get a bunch of their friends together in a private residence and the counterfeiters would bring the stuff there. It keeps it off the street and makes it harder to find. We're seeing a lot of that with jeans. Now we want to find out how big this guy is -- and try to arrange either a [jeans] party or a big buy."

Later, after what she refers to as the "undercover op" is finished, Miriam feels confident she's not only gotten more evidence but also has gained David's trust. She thinks he can be reeled in by the chance to sell a substantial amount of merchandise. "I told him that my mom had a whole bunch of friends that wanted stuff and it would be easier to do it all at once."

At press time, Buckner was optimistic that arrests were imminent. As for the evidence, it takes Ed Hardy founder and designer Christian Audigier seconds to confirm what Buckner knows. "These are not real, they are totally fake," he says of the jeans. "I look at the buttons first, and the stitching is the wrong color."

Then he holds the dusty-rose hoodie aloft. "We don't even make this color -- and we don't do this kind of raw seam."

He points to the white banner wrapped around a heart-and-skull tattoo design that bore the words "Love Kills Slowly." "See this yellow discoloration at the corners?" he continues. "It is because they had to copy the design from another piece."

Closer inspection turns up additional telltale signs, starting with the quality of the collar tags and back-pocket embroidery. The sweat shirt actually has two tags; a fake one in the collar that carried the Ed Hardy name and "Made in the U.S." slogan, and a second in the side seam that said "Made in China." An authentic version of the hoodie (with a rhinestone-studded skull design) retails for $170 and the jeans retail for $240.

Audigier estimates that counterfeiting costs Ed Hardy $20 million to $25 million a year in global sales. "If you want to make sure you get the real thing, don't buy Ed Hardy off EBay," he said. "And don't buy it at swap meets or from the trunk of a car."

Buckner concurs. "The chances of legitimate stuff being sold out of a car trunk is pretty much nil."

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