Customs agents hunt for counterfeit goods at Washington ports

Laundry soap did seem an unusual product for someone to counterfeit.

Rolex watches, Gucci handbags, Tiffany jewelry or Windows operating systems are the kinds of goods that you imagine in the counterfeit world.

But fake Tide detergent?

In September, 5,000 boxes of the phony stuff were seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents in Seattle after being unloaded from a container ship that had arrived from China.

That shipment, the agency estimates, would have generated a profit of at least $4,000 on the Tide-labeled detergent and an additional 3,600 bags of Ariel-labeled detergent also found in the container. A favorite abroad, Ariel is sold here in such places as Mexican groceries.

If there is a profit to be made, however small, somebody will try to sneak it in. And it all adds up.

Two weeks later, 52,160 packages of fake Ariel were confiscated from the same importer, for which the profit would have been more than $24,000, the CBP estimates.

"A detergent does seem a little weird," Judy Staudt, supervisory import specialist with the CBP, said of counterfeiting Tide or Ariel. "But you understand that it's 300 or 400 percent profit."

The fakes could have ended up in mom-and-pop groceries or maybe some outdoor market.

Nationwide, 95 percent of our overseas cargo moves through our ports, the CBP says. A million of those ubiquitous, 40-foot metal containers, the agency says, arrived by ocean in Seattle and Tacoma in fiscal 2009. And they have to be checked out.

Counterfeiting costs U.S. businesses $200 billion to $250 billion annually, according to the International Anticounterfeiting Coalition, composed of affected companies.

These days, the same techniques implemented after the Sept. 11 attacks to look for terrorist weapons also nab that counterfeit detergent.

The CBP now is the largest law-enforcement agency in the country, with some 58,000 employees. The old Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S. Border Patrol, U.S. Customs and federal agriculture inspectors were combined in 2003.

Its search for illicit goods includes:

-Sending the containers through a radiation portal monitor that looks a bit like a toll booth, and records any radiation emanating from the container. Officers sit in front of monitors that rank the radiation.

Ceramics, for example, emit naturally occurring harmless radiation. But a neutron alert might come from something like oil-drilling equipment. Or it could come from plutonium to make a nuke.

-Randomly selecting containers and shooting them with gamma rays to show the physical shape of what's inside, even through six inches of steel. This is called a "nonintrusive inspection" to keep commerce flowing, meaning the container isn't examined physically unless the gamma images show something unusual.

-Looking for telltale minuscule sawdust in wooden shipping crates caused by Asian wood-boring beetles that can destroy American forests. If larvae is found, the container is fumigated and might be shipped back to its originating port.

-Using dogs trained to sniff for hidden currency, drugs, explosives and human stowaways. Coming through customs at the airport, the dogs have such a keen sense of smell that they'll sit by your side (not a good sign) even if your only contact with pot was smoking a joint hours earlier in Amsterdam.

There are plenty of mementos in the office of Judy Staudt on the 21st floor of a Second Avenue building in downtown Seattle.

A bunch of fake labels, ready to be sewn onto a fake garment, everything from Tommy Hilfiger to Ralph Lauren.

A fake Louis Vuitton purse.

"Look at the quality of the zippers. You can't even close them," she said. "Cheap zippers."

There's a fake Chanel bag, although you have to do a little work to come up with the Chanel logo that consists of two intertwined C's for the founder's full name, Coco Chanel.

The C's are closed so they look like O's. But the embroidery is such that you can easily snip a chunk out of each O and get a C.

The way the counterfeit detergents were found, Staudt explains, is because the technicians working on that floor saw something in the import manifest on their computers that caught their attention.

Since 9/11, a shipper has to provide a description, weight and other information 24 hours before a shipment is even loaded at a foreign port.

The manufacturer already had been flagged as having problems with a previous shipment of detergent sent to Philadelphia.

And this particular shipment had been listed as "organic soap," which sounded a bit too general, said Doug McBride, Seattle spokesman for the CBP. So the container was routed to a warehouse the agency has in the Sodo District, stacked with boxes of goods to be inspected.

When a sampling of the detergent boxes was opened, agents couldn't help but notice that the Tide was labeled as "Made in USA."

And the weight listed on each box was in kilograms, not pounds. Plus the weight figures used a comma, as in "3,6 kg," which is how weights are listed in many other countries, instead of the Americanized "3.6."

At a distance, the color printing on the detergent containers looked fine. Closer up, there was fuzziness, like when you take a picture of a picture.

The boxes of detergent now are stored in a warehouse, and the case is still being investigated, Staudt said. She said the detergent likely will end up in a landfill, or may be taken to a hazardous-waste site, the contents of the detergent still unknown.

If you're thinking about turning a quick profit selling counterfeits, on eBay for example, consider the price if you are caught.

On Oct. 1, Genevieve Rullan, 34, of Seattle, was sentenced in U.S. District Court to 30 days in jail, 120 days of home confinement, 150 hours of community service and three years of supervised release and ordered to pay $64,500 in restitution for selling counterfeit "Ab Circle Pro" exercisers on eBay, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

The U.S. Attorney's Office says Rullan sold more than 1,000 counterfeit items between 2008 and 2009 and that a search of her home found 210 of the fake units.

The fakes will end up in a landfill, as customers complained about their low quality.

"I think she was paying $16 for them, and selling them on eBay for anywhere from $130 to $150," Staudt said.

She says someone such as Rullan could have ordered the fakes from plenty of websites.

So for her staff, whether designer bags, exercise equipment or laundry soap, the chase is always on.

"Easy money," Staudt said. "It comes down to easy money."