Store owner gets 44 months for counterfeit goods

Posted: October 05, 2012

For the fashion-conscious, New Discoveries seemed to be a shopper's paradise.

Wedged into one of South Street's busier blocks, the Philadelphia store boasted the most stylish brands of bags and accessories: Gucci, Coach, Prada, Jimmy Choo, Fendi, Ugg, Dior, Chanel, Tiffany, Kate Spade, and so on.

The only problem: Most of the goods were frauds.

On Wednesday, a federal judge sentenced the shop owner, Yi Ping Zheng, to 44 months in prison for trafficking counterfeit goods. Zheng, a legal alien, also could face deportation back to China.

The case represented a microcosm of the counterfeit goods racket, one that effectively steals billions of dollars in profits from legitimate manufacturers and is sometimes fueled by consumers who know but don't care.

"This kind of counterfeit trafficking has repercussions on the economy," Assistant U.S. Attorney Arlene D. Fisk told U.S. District Judge Eduardo Robreno before he imposed the sentence.

When U.S. Homeland Security agents raided New Discoveries in December 2011, they found more than 3,000 counterfeit items, plus tools Zheng used to affix phony labels that made his wares look like the real thing.

About three-quarters of Zheng's inventory appeared to be counterfeit, they said.

The knockoffs - worth more than $1.2 million if the items had been real - represented the largest haul in Operation Holiday Hoax, a nationwide operation late last year to crack down on counterfeit goods, said Ryan McNamara, lead agent on the case.

Agents didn't interview Zheng's customers, so they couldn't say whether they realized they were getting bogus goods. But he accepted only cash, and offered prices well below the high-end stores. And the savviest of customers also knew to ask to see the locked second-floor showroom, which had an even bigger inventory.

That's what undercover agents did during a secretly recorded visit to the store weeks before their 2011 raid.

When they returned, they filled 77 boxes with counterfeit items and hauled the items off to a New Jersey warehouse to be destroyed.

Zheng, 48, couldn't plead ignorance, officials said. He had been arrested two years earlier in a 2009 raid by city authorities but never prosecuted.

Speaking through a translator, the store owner told the judge he knew he had done "something terribly wrong" but said he needed the money to survive.

The case left more than a few unanswered questions. Zheng, a U.S. resident since 1984, said he spoke no English.

He filed tax returns that reported only $5,000 to $8,000 a year in income, but agents discovered he had wired $22,000 back to China in the last few years. They weren't sure who got the money or why.

Zheng has a wife and two children, but told the judge they are estranged.

And throughout his case, witnesses scheduled to speak on his behalf - including a relative who was going to post her home for bail and another who ostensibly planned to offer a character reference - simply failed to show up in court.

During the investigation, Zheng wouldn't say who sold him the goods. He repeatedly insisted to agents that he acted alone, they said, even though some of the bogus goods arrived in packages addressed to his landlord, a woman who once ran the now-defunct store.

His resolve to stand alone for the crime appeared to crack just as the judge was prepared to announce his sentence. Through his interpreter, Zheng began talking about cooperating. His lawyer, Scott P. Sigman, then asked the judge to seal the hearing transcript.

After the proceeding ended, Sigman said Zheng maintained that he was "just a small fish in a big pond."

He declined to say more.


Contact John P. Martin at 215-854-4774, at jmartin@phillynews.com or follow @JPMartinInky on Twitter.

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