Virginia Men Face U.S. Trial In Peddling of Phony Purses

  1. From Page One of today's Washington Post:

    Virginia Men Face U.S. Trial In Peddling of Phony Purses

    [SIZE=-1]By Jerry Markon[/SIZE]
    [SIZE=-1]Washington Post Staff Writer[/SIZE]

    [SIZE=-1]Tuesday, January 30, 2007; A01[/SIZE]



    They are known as "purse parties," modern-day Tupperware parties with a twist: hundreds of designer handbags selling for hundreds of dollars off. Women known as "the purse ladies" run the gatherings at private homes.

    "They were all the rage," said Peggy Stypula, an Alexandria resident who attended parties in Arlington and Fairfax counties. "The purses were spread out all over the house, and you walked around and picked out what you wanted."

    But one partygoer in Northern Virginia suspected counterfeit couture and called police. Federal agents soon seized 30,000 purses from a Fairfax warehouse, including some from a tractor-trailer that pulled up during the search.

    Now, prosecutors are taking to federal court the men they say provided phony merchandise. A father and son are scheduled to go on trial tomorrow in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, accused of supplying thousands of counterfeit handbags for the purse parties and also selling them at kiosks in malls throughout the Washington region, including Tysons Corner Center, Montgomery Mall and the Old Post Office Pavilion.

    The trial in one of the nation's largest counterfeiting prosecutions will feature testimony from representatives of Gucci, Kate Spade and other leading designer labels, according to court documents. Exhibit A will be a sampling of hundreds of purses, hauled into the courtroom one box at a time.

    The case is bringing scrutiny to a widespread problem that has been publicly visible for years: trafficking in handbags and other counterfeit goods.

    Shoppers in Washington and other major cities can find fake fancy designer purses on street vendor carts, but purse parties -- though perhaps more underground with the heightened law enforcement attention -- are still held in the suburbs.

    Lalit Kumar Ohri, 63, and his son Gaurav Ohri, 29, are charged with conspiracy and trafficking in counterfeit goods. Prosecutors say the pair sold purses bearing the trademarks of at least nine leading designer labels, including Louis Vuitton, Prada and Burberry. The pair allegedly had the purses embossed with trademark-infringing labels or gave the labels to purchasers. Some purchasers reportedly affixed the labels with glue.

    The U.S. attorney's office in Alexandria would not comment. Nina Ginsburg, an attorney for the Ohris, would say only that they deny knowingly selling counterfeit handbags.

    Experts say the problem of trafficking in counterfeit goods has mushroomed in recent years with globalization and the lowering of trade barriers. Everything from medicine to car parts is counterfeited, according to the International AntiCounterfeiting Coalition, a District-based industry group.

    Among the leading fake items are designer handbags, known as knockoffs. "They're easy to counterfeit, they're small and they come in big containers from China," said Barbara Kolsun, senior vice president and general counsel of 7 For All Mankind and a former top official at Kate Spade.

    She said selling the knockoffs "is stealing. You're stealing the name. It's no different than walking into a store and stealing a Kate Spade handbag off the shelves."

    Even though it is a crime to sell such trademarked goods -- although not to purchase them -- enforcement is spotty, law enforcement officials said. Police have higher priorities, and federal prosecutors take only the biggest cases, so street vendors' booths and mall kiosks where knockoffs are sold often slip by.

    Travis Johnson said he walks by sidewalk vendors selling counterfeit handbags every day on his way to work -- at the anti-counterfeiting coalition -- on K Street between Connecticut Avenue and 18th Street NW. "There's a perception that big, wealthy companies can put up with a few knockoffs," said Johnson, the coalition's general counsel. "It's not really seen as doing major harm."

    Purse parties began in New York City 10 to 15 years ago and gradually spread, experts say. Some are advertised in the suburbs through mass e-mailings. Many who attend them believe they are getting either a good fake or stolen property, according to experts on counterfeiting.

    The parties that Stypula attended in 2005 were elaborate open houses, with free wine and tables of shrimp dip, casseroles and a variety of appetizers. The woman who ran the Arlington party had made a business out of it, and her husband had even quit a lucrative job to work with her, Stypula said.

    Stypula said that competition for the best bags was fierce and that she clung to the two Prada knockoffs she wanted so no one would grab them away. She and several friends chatted at the party about whether something was amiss.

    "I said why would her husband quit his job when this is such a phony business and people could theoretically go down for selling knockoffs," Stypula said. "I know you can't get a Prada bag for $40 or $45, so you know these are hot from somewhere."

    In fact, handbags by Prada and some other designer labels, including Gucci, sell for anywhere from hundreds of dollars to more than $2,000 each.
    The parties apparently have grown less frequent in Northern Virginia as word has spread about the Ohri case.

    After an anonymous tip from a purse partygoer, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided one of the homes in 2003 and then found the trove of purses at the Ohris' warehouse in Lorton. It took more than 10 agents, working full time, a month to count and catalogue the merchandise.

    Agents also found more than 100 phony Kate Spade labels in a desk drawer at the warehouse, court documents say.

    The Ohris, of Fairfax, were indicted last year. They could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

    Lalit Ohri is a retired lieutenant colonel in the army of India who started his business, now called Sonya Handbags, in the early 1990s by selling leather goods at Eastern Market in the District, Ginsburg said. As business grew, he expanded to malls, and by 2003, there were kiosks operating under the name Sonya Handbags in 13 malls in Virginia, Maryland and the District, including Fair Oaks Shopping Center in Fairfax and Columbia Mall.

    Court documents say the Ohris were told by some malls to stop selling counterfeit goods but ignored the warnings. But Suzette Timme, general manager of the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City, where the family operated two kiosks, said mall security never noticed any problem.

    "They were just selling generic bags with no labels," Timme said.
     
  2. I just saw the story on the news. The trial starts tomorrow, should be very interesting...
     
  3. I was just reading the same article in the Post. These men are two of thousands doing the same. I am sure those who sell fakes are watching this case closely.
     
  4. You know, I see those kiosks all the time at Tyson's and Pentagon City. Interesting article.
     
  5. Me too. I have definitely seen the "Sonya" handbag store and kiosks at Pentagon City mall that this article mentions.
     
  6. Yeah, are you guys talking about the kiosks by Sephora? total crap get 3 bags for $15:cursing: :cursing:
     
  7. Yup, that's the one!
     
  8. We should do a TPFer drive by protest :busted :busted :cursing:
     
  9. Interesting article. Thanks for posting! :yes: I hadn't seen this one.