Feds Crack Down on Contraband Before Holidays

Behind scenes with Homeland Security’s "Operation Holiday Hoax"

They are the first line of defense for America’s security and safety. They keep not only terrorism at bay, but also help keep you from being ripped off. And they’re working overtime around the holidays.

They are agents with United States Homeland Security. Agents who work for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

And if you’re like a lot of shoppers these days, you’re doing much of your purchasing online. That leaves you especially vulnerable, Homeland Security officials say, to threats from overseas not only to your security but also to your wallets and pocketbooks.

As part of a special national three-day crackdown on counterfeit and dangerous items by Homeland Security, NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit was granted access to off-limits processing areas at San Francisco International Airport. In this secure location, dozens of border control and customs agents work seven days a week canning, X-raying and looking through one million packages that come through the mail to the San Francisco Bay Area each month.

This holiday’s crackdown is called "Operation Holiday Hoax." Its goal: To keep you and your wallet safe. Agents say that these kind of operations are made necessary by the proliferation of online and mobile retail sites.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Retail Federation in the last decade, e-commerce sites have quickly become a major driving force in the American consumer economy. The U.S. Census bureau says Americans bought more than $200 billion worth of merchandise online in so far in 2012. Just in the third quarter of 2012 Census figures show that, adjusted for seasonal variation, Americans spent $57 billion on e-commerce retail sales.

That’s an increase of 3.7 percent just from the previous quarter. In fact, this Christmas season figures from comScore show Americans purchased $35.3 billion worth of merchandise, up 15 percent from last year. ComScore figures show that Americans spent $816 million dollars online on Black Monday alone, up 16 percent from last year. And U.S. consumers spent $1.25 billion online on retail purchasing on Cyber Monday this year, according to comScore.

That spending equates to more than 5 percent of the total U.S. retail economy up from just about 1 percent ten years ago. While the use of computers and the Internet to shop and buy makes things easier and more convenient for shoppers, Homeland Security say all that high tech retail buying madness creates a vulnerability which bad guys are now rushing to exploit. Just last year as part of a similar crackdown, U.S. Homeland Security officers nationwide seized 327,000 counterfeit and pirated items worth a retail value of $76.8 million.

They say the vast majority of the items seized had been bought by American consumers on-line and shipped through the mail and other means into the country every day. And Homeland Security officers this year expect to seize an even bigger, record haul of fake merchandise coming in from overseas.

“We have this stuff come in all the time every day,” said Frank Falcon, supervisory officer for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the international mail room at San Francisco International Airport.

“This probably is someone’s Christmas present,” Falcon said as he held up a seized fake NFL football jersey. Falcon and his officers have to scrutinize 40,000 packages a day in the San Francisco International Airport facility. “It looks like the real thing,” Falcon said as he held up another fake jersey.

“(When) you go on line and buy this thinking you’re buying the real thing somebody is making a big profit off of your gift ideas. (They are) ripping you off.” And it’s not just counterfeit goods in these packages that are a threat.

These agents say they are always on alert for things like radioactive dirty bombs or dangerous chemicals or animals shipped through the mail. “Every package that comes in gets scanned for radiation,” said Anthony Ho, assistant special agent in charge at the San Francisco office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“There’s a number of dangers in the goods that come into this country not just counterfeit goods which endanger our jobs but also good that potentially could endanger the physical safety of our citizens,” Ho said.

During "Operation Holiday Hoax," in the San Francisco facility alone officers intercepted everything from tens of thousands of counterfeit sports jerseys (everything from the NFL to European soccer clubs), to fake Tiffany jewelry, to fake pharmaceutical drugs (fake Viagra and diabetes medication), to spiders and scorpions mounted in glass cases which though the animals were dead could still carry poisonous venom or disease according to agents.

“The bulk of the mail that comes through to San Francisco comes from Asia,” said Ed Low, chief supervisor for Customs and Border Protection at the airport’s international mail facility. “Right now because it’s the holiday season we’re seeing a lot of sports jerseys a lot of apparel hand bags always from high end manufacturers, Dr. Dre headphones,” Low said.

“Just whatever the hot commodity out on the street now that people want to buy is what we’re seeing in the mail.”

All the seized merchandise in this operation will become part of a criminal investigation or it will be destroyed. If you bought it online you’re out of luck. You won’t be getting the merchandise you ordered in the mail.

“You know, in the past if they bought something they had to go to a brick and mortar store,”  Ho said. “Now, their computer is the store and that’s why this is the front line.”

Agents say that if you think you’ve been victimized these officers say they’re here to help. Help track down who sold it to you and stop them before someone else buys something fake or potentially dangerous on-line. In the last three days.

Border Protection and ICE agents seized 300 counterfeit, pirated and questionable items in San Francisco in less than three days work.

While they can’t effectively go after the companies overseas who are making and shipping these things to the US, ICE officers will go after the large sales outlets where some of the bulk items were headed.

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