In the midday heat of downtown Los Angeles, Chris Johnson squints at the jeans-clad plastic buttocks of mannequins lined up in Fashion District storefronts.
He's looking for something special: a horseshoe design stitched in the jeans' back pockets. He passes stores selling counterfeit Coach bags and Prada sunglasses, then heads down an alley to a store where two men are checking their cellphones and looking bored.
"Have any True Religion, size 6?" he asks. One of the shopkeepers looks around to make sure no one else is nearby, then disappears into a back room. He emerges holding two pairs of women's jeans, complete with the trademarked True Religion horseshoes on the pocket and True Religion tags, picturing a Buddha holding a guitar. Johnson buys one pair -- which usually retails for between $170 and $400 -- for $60.
Back on the street he inspects his purchase more closely. "I can tell just by looking that they're fake," he says. "The stitching is inferior to the real McCoy."
But Johnson isn't disappointed -- in fact, he seems satisfied as he inspects the jeans and points out each flaw. With his bulky, 6-foot-2 frame, mop of curly hair, ruddy cheeks and glasses pinching the tip of his nose, he looks like an overgrown boy who's just won a treasure hunt.
In a sense he has. Johnson is among a growing number of fashion sleuths who covertly buy counterfeit products so that major designers can sue the people who sell them. A specialist in dungarees, Johnson has a client list that includes True Religion Brand Jeans, Joe's Jeans and Antik Denim. He likes to joke that none of those companies makes jeans in his size.
But it's an uphill battle for Johnson and the hundreds of investigators like him as the flow of counterfeit goods into the United States increases. Customs officials seized $197 million worth of fakes in 2007, up 27% from the previous year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Last year, customs officials seized $18 million worth of counterfeit apparel, which includes denim, from China alone -- up 29% from the previous year.
Those numbers represent only a small slice of the counterfeit goods traded every day: According to the International Anticounterfeiting Coalition, the global trade in illegitimate goods has increased from $5.5 billion a year in 1982 to $600 billion today.
Los Angeles is a hub for counterfeit denim sales. Many of the goods come in through the local ports, where the sheer volume of traffic makes them difficult to catch. The size of the retail market in Los Angeles creates a lot of opportunity for illicit business: About $2 billion worth of counterfeit goods is sold annually in L.A. County, according to the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.
Luxury labels, including the many expensive jeans brands made in Los Angeles, are prime targets for piracy. As the upscale denim industry has grown, so too has the copycatting.
"The counterfeiting problem exists with Rolex watches and high-end jeans because people want the cachet without spending the money," said Douglas Masters, who specializes in intellectual property protection at law firm Loeb & Loeb in Chicago. That's a boon to counterfeiters, he said. "The opportunity to make money is greater when there's a much higher profit margin."
Denim companies say customers who unknowingly buy knockoffs will be dissatisfied and spread negative word of mouth about the jeans. Counterfeits "hurt the brand integrity and deter people from purchasing the product," said Deborah Greaves, general counsel for True Religion.
Some consumers say they can't tell the difference.
Echo Park resident Golda Collier, 28, said someone gave her a pair of True Religions that she soon learned were fakes. She still wears them, though, and doesn't understand why people spend hundreds of dollars on jeans when they can pop down to Santee Alley and buy them for 10 bucks. "No one knows the difference," she said.
Fashion student Jaclyn Hollenback, 18, disagrees. She started buying True Religion and other expensive jeans when she was in high school, and is a loyal customer.
"They last longer and don't stretch out," she said. "They hold everything in that needs to be held in."
When consumers buy counterfeit True Religion jeans rather than the real thing, it hurts the company's bottom line. (Although it isn't exactly limping along: True Religion posted a profit of $27.8 million in fiscal 2007, up 28% from a year earlier.)
That's why denim companies spend millions annually to employ people like Johnson.
Twenty years ago, Johnson, now 52, probably couldn't have imagined that his job would entail countless hours shopping for women's denim. He likes to talk about how he was one of the inspirations for Tom Cruise's character in the movie "A Few Good Men": As a Navy attorney in the 1980s he filed the original complaint against a Guantanamo Bay officer whose approval of a hazing procedure resulted in the near-death of a Marine.
Later he became an assistant U.S. attorney with the Organized Crime Strike Force and spent 11 years busting Russian and Asian organized crime rings.
Now he spends half his time finding counterfeits and the other half in criminal defense working for clients as varied as defendants charged with money laundering and Marines accused of killing an Iraqi prisoner. He's set up a website at the modest address www.bestfederallawyer.com.
Johnson started going after counterfeiters when the Asian organized crime syndicates he was following in the 1990s turned to making fake products. They wanted to avoid the increasingly strict penalties for other types of crime, he said, and saw that counterfeiters often got only a slap on the wrist.
He's conducted hundreds of investigations into counterfeit movies and computer software, and has seen counterfeiters sell everything from fake AIDS medications to batteries that contained 100 times more mercury than the law allowed.
In his office on the 53rd floor of the AON building in downtown Los Angeles, pairs of counterfeit jeans bought online are stacked atop a shelf. The Internet has made it easier to sell knockoffs internationally, which is why Johnson spends much of his time trolling the Web for fake denim -- so much so that he's turned it into a bit of an art form.
Stretching his fingers, Johnson types "cheap true religion jeans" into EBay's search box. Dozens of pairs come up -- some costing as little as $20. He zooms in on images of their zippers and their tags and delves into the seller's history to see if they've sold other knockoffs. He bids $74 on a pair he's pretty sure are counterfeit.
Johnson, who is divorced, laughs at the prospect of adding another pair of women's jeans to his collection. His Woodland Hills garage contains so many stacks of jeans he could clothe dozens of women.
His law firm, Gareeb and Pham, asks clients for a retainer to cover the costs of legal fees and of buying counterfeits online.
"Cheap, cheap, cheap, everything's cheap," he says, printing a page from the website where he found the jeans. He doesn't rub his hands in glee, but it looks like he wants to. Once he verifies the garments are counterfeit he'll send a cease-and-desist letter to the seller or begin legal proceedings.
The seller of these jeans claims to have bought them at Nordstrom on sale, but the seller's history shows she's sold hundreds of pairs of jeans before. Johnson has heard it all -- sellers saying their jeans are cheap because they're going out of business, because they don't fit into them anymore, that they need to sell their jeans to pay the bills.
Counterfeiters, he believes, won't turn away from the practice unless the penalties get stricter or they find something even more lucrative.
"As soon as it becomes more profitable to do something else," he said, "they will."
Sandra Adamo, co-founder of Siwy Denim of America, recently hired Gareeb and Pham to help her go after counterfeiters after she realized her small operation in Cleveland couldn't do it alone. In August, Siwy sued Charlotte Russe Inc. for allegedly selling copycat Siwy jeans in New York and Ohio.
Many of the busts are pure luck. Adamo said she found counterfeits after seeing people on the street wearing knockoffs of Siwy designs and asking them where they purchased them.
But others come from the hundreds of investigators employed by the big companies. A tip from a private investigator in Boise, Idaho, recently led to a bust of a Los Angeles warehouse holding 6,600 pairs of jeans infringing True Religion's trademarks. Jeans from the warehouse were being sold across the country, including in boutiques near the Grove.
The Los Angeles Police Department has only six detectives assigned to find counterfeit merchandise, said Lt. Patrick Shields, who heads the special enforcement section of the Vice Division.
The division manages to bust three or four counterfeiters a month and has confiscated $17 million in counterfeit goods this year. But it depends heavily on tips from consumers and private investigators working for big companies.
"We have tentacles spread through major metropolitan areas," said Greaves, the True Religion attorney. That involves dozens of private investigators, as well as customs officials and law enforcement personnel who have been trained to spot fake True Religion products.
Investigators aim to go up the supply chain. Companies typically sue the merchants, who then give up the names of their suppliers. Getting to the suppliers' suppliers is the next step.
But it's hard to catch the people at the top, as Johnson knows all too well. For years he's been tracking a group he calls the "Big Fish" that informants say does $7 million in sales of counterfeit jeans annually.
In April, Gareeb and Pham filed suit on behalf of True Religion against two men (and a handful of businesses, including one called Jizzle Tech) who it alleges are behind the operation.
Johnson believes he will turn up more people in the "Big Fish" operation as he subpoenas credit card information from the websites selling the jeans.
"With this kind of investigation you really don't know who's behind it, but as you start bringing more people into the lawsuit, you find out more," he said.
But because the "Big Fish" import most of their goods from China, the chain probably will lead to a dead end, he said. That happens frequently in these investigations.
About 80% of counterfeit goods seized in the United States this year came from China, where companies find that legal action stalls or dies completely. That means every time Johnson stops a seller in Santee Alley or online, another will probably arise.
"It's kind of like playing Whac-a-Mole at the circus," he said. "You get one, another one comes popping up."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
How to spot true blues
Want to know if your new dungarees are truly True Religion? Here are some tips to help you separate the bona fide jeans from the fakes:
* True Religion sews a security tag featuring a red "U" beneath the inside labels of its jeans and T-shirts.
* General counsel Deborah Greaves says fake jeans often smell funny because of the way they're shipped to the U.S. True Religion jeans for children are made in Mexico; jeans for adults are made in the United States.
* The rivets on the front of the jeans should have "TRBJ" printed on them and the zippers should read "YKK."
* In many styles of True Religion jeans, smiling Buddhas are printed on the front pocket linings. They should be neither too bright nor too faded. The pockets should be lined with Pellon, a thin fabric used for support.
* If the denim seems flimsy or cheap the jeans are probably fake, especially if they're for larger folks. True Religion doesn't make men's jeans bigger than size 38, or women's bigger than size 32 (although it once made women's size 34s).
* If you think you've found a deal that's too good to be true, it probably is. A pair of True Religion jeans for less than $100 is probably fake.
-- Alana Semuels