Raids carried out at two Lawrence flea markets over Mother's Day weekend turned up about $30 million worth of bogus clothing, shoes, handbags, and electronics believed to have been manufactured in China and shipped to Massachusetts for sale, a federal official said Friday.
The seizure is the largest in the history of the Boston office of Homeland Security Investigations and provides a peek into the $650 billion world of product counterfeiting.
"This is not a victimless crime," said Bruce Foucart, special agent in charge of the Boston office of Homeland Security Investigations, a division of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"It takes away jobs and it can be a serious threat to public safety," he said.
Authorities seized the goods May 10 from Don Flea Market and Lawrence Flea Market & Auction House, officials said. If they were legitimate products, investigators believe the items would have an approximate retail value of $30 million, said Foucart. It would take about three tractor trailers to fit everything confiscated, officials said.
"It's garbage; it's all junk," Foucart said.
Authorities arrested 42 Chinese nationals living in New York during the raids at the two Lawrence flea markets, Foucart said. The flea market operators have not been charged, he said. Don Flea Market declined to comment. A message left for Lawrence Flea Market & Auction House was not returned.
Suspects were charged with distributing a counterfeit mark, said Steven F. O'Connell, a spokesman for Essex District Attorney Jonathan W. Blodgett. They pleaded not guilty and were ordered to return to court in July, he said.
Punishment is tied to how many counterfeit goods were involved, their retail value, and whether the offender previously committed the same crime.
For example, violators dealing with up to $1,000 worth of bogus products can be sentenced to up to two years in jail, whereas crimes involving more than $10,000 in goods can result in a prison term of up to 10 years, according to statute.
This investigation started last fall, when Foucart said a Chelmsford police officer told him about the possible sale of knock-off goods at flea markets in Lawrence.
Authorities believe the goods were made in China, imported or smuggled into New York, and then transported to storage units in Lawrence before they were taken to the flea markets to be sold.
The seized goods were falsely marked as having been made by brands including Michael Kors, Nike, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Coach, and Ugg. Authorities also took posession of 13 vehicles, officials said.
The investigation into the counterfeit items is ongoing, Foucart said.
Bob Barchiesi, president of International AntiCounterfeiting Coalition Inc., said the seizure and arrests in Lawrence are "huge."
"It should have a huge impact on owners of flea markets looking to sell these dangerous products to consumers," Barchiesi said.
Barchiesi said 93 percent of counterfeit goods seized by federal officials come from Hong Kong or mainland China, where knockoff goods are made in facilities with no health or safety controls and substandard conditions.
Organized crime and terrorist groups have also been known to deal in bogus products as a way to reap profits without running the risks associated with selling illegal drugs or firearms, Barchiesi said.
Some counterfeit goods are dangerous. Barchiesi cited examples of knockoff perfumes containing urine, a phony charger for an Apple iPhone that electrocuted a woman, and apparel and accessories containing lead, inferior dyes, or formaldehyde. "They're buying a product that's basically garbage," he said.