Louis Vuitton purses. Chanel perfume. Ray-Ban sunglasses.
They’re sold at flea markets across the Rio Grande Valley — and they’re almost always fake.
While knockoffs may seem harmless, they hurt legitimate businesses and pose a threat to public health, said Maria Michel-Manzo, the assistant special agent in charge for Homeland Security Investigations in McAllen.
“So when you do that, you’re taking away from the economy,” Michel-Manzo said. “From everybody.”
Homeland Security Investigations, a division of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is charged with cracking down on counterfeit products.
“We also work closely with a lot of these companies,” Michel-Manzo said. “The real Chanel. The real Louis Vuitton.”
During an investigation that started in August, the Alton Police Department seized about $15,000 worth of counterfeit goods from someone who sold them at Ochoa’s Flea Market. Homeland Security Investigations determined the counterfeit goods had been purchased from a seller in China.
After making a small purchase to confirm the website actually sold counterfeit goods, Homeland Security Investigations obtained a seizure warrant and shut down the website.
Problems with counterfeit products at local flea markets aren’t new.
Luxottica Group, which sells Oakley and Ray-Ban sunglasses, sued Ochoa’s Flea Market in March 2020, claiming the owners turned a blind eye to trademark infringement.
The company sent an investigator to the flea market in 2017, 2018 and 2019.
After each visit, the company asked Ochoa’s Flea Market to stop the sale of counterfeit products, according to the lawsuit, which includes dozens of photos taken by the investigator.
“In all, Plaintiffs’ investigators visited the premises of Ochoa’s Flea Market on ten separate occasions dating from May 13, 2017 through December 7, 2019; observed hundreds of pairs of counterfeit sunglasses bearing the Ray-Ban® and Oakley® Trademarks; and purchased at least 37 pairs of counterfeit sunglasses from Defendants’ vendors—each bearing the Ray-Ban® or Oakley® Trademarks,” according to the lawsuit.
Ochoa’s Flea Market denied the allegations.
After more than a year of litigation, Luxottica Group and Ochoa’s Flea Market notified the court they’d reached a tentative settlement. The case is scheduled for a status conference in December.
Michel-Manzo said when she worked in Brownsville, agents used to raid a local flea market every December.
They had to rent trucks to cart away all the counterfeit products. Sifting through them took weeks.
“I would go do the buys,” Michel-Manzo said. “Fake TAGs, fake Rolex, fake everything.”
Fake cosmetics, which may contain harmful chemicals, are particularly dangerous.
“None of this is FDA-approved to be sold,” Michel-Manzo said. “There’s no warranty. It’s not safe.”
Fake consumer electronics, which contain sub-standard batteries, may catch fire or explode.
“And most of the time, when these things are being brought into the country, they’re mislabeled,” Michel-Manzo said.
To spot fake products, Homeland Security Investigations suggests that shoppers follow tried-and-tested advice: If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is.