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NYC bill targets buyers of counterfeits

Measure calls for steep fines, up to a year in prison

A woman shopped for bags along Canal Street in New York City, where there is a busy trade in counterfeit items.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A woman shopped for bags along Canal Street in New York City, where there is a busy trade in counterfeit items.

NEW YORK — Bargain hunters from around the world flock to Manhattan’s Chinatown for bags, jewelry, and other accessories bursting onto sidewalks along Canal Street.

Among the goods are items labeled ‘‘Prada’’ and ‘‘Louis Vuitton’’ or with the name of some other luxury brand — but they are counterfeits, sold for a pittance. In some cases, handbags going for $2,000 on Fifth Avenue can be had downtown for, say, $20. The fakes, that is.

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Until now, the law enforcement focus has been on catching sellers. But if a bill passes the City Council, customers caught buying counterfeits could be punished with a fine of up to $1,000 or up to a year in prison.

The New York City legislation, if passed, would be the first in the United States to criminalize the purchase of counterfeits.

Council member Margaret Chin, who introduced the bill, said counterfeits deprive the city of at least $1 billion in tax revenue a year, and the trade has been linked to child labor abuses and the funding of organized crime and terror groups.

‘‘For tourists, it’s fun, it’s a bit of adventure,’’ Chin says. ‘‘We have to let people know that if you engage in this activity you are committing a crime.’’

Some people at a hearing on Thursday were concerned about how a law would be enforced and whether it would hurt both businesses and buyers.

Among them was Kathleen McGhee, director of the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement and the official in charge of sting operations that have closed down 40 illegal stores in Chinatown since 2006.

She testified against the bill, saying that showing a customer had knowledge the goods were counterfeit would be difficult.

Council member Peter Vallone Jr. said he would not support the bill in its current form because “a year in jail seems a little tough’’ for buying fake goods.

Chin said that city officials would launch a campaign informing the public and tourism companies, distributing flyers and posting signs.

In France, everyone seems to know buying or carrying fakes is a crime, said Valerie Salembier, a former publisher of Harper’s Bazaar magazine who testified Thursday. She runs the nonprofit Authentics Foundation, dedicated to educating consumers about counterfeits.

Air France warns tourists to stay away from fake goods, because anyone in the country ‘‘risks fines of up to 300,000 euros’’ — more than $478,000 — ‘‘and up to three years in prison for the mere possession of a counterfeit item.’’

‘‘It’s why they don’t have a big problem with counterfeits in France,” Salembier said.

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