John Dean looks at the spread of fake goods flooding our markets and the impact on some of the region's business.

IT is often referred to as a victimless crime, but ask any of the business people who fall prey to counterfeiters and they tell a different story.

From clothes manufacturers to video rental stores, furniture makers to newsagents, the spread of fake goods is causing serious problems for businesses throughout the region. It is even threatening the future of some.

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One of those being hit is the famous company Robert Thompson's Craftsmen Limited, manufacturers of the renowned Mouseman furniture.

Based at Kilburn, near Thirsk, North Yorkshire, the company continues the tradition started by craftsman Robert Thompson, who began identifying his furniture with a trademark carved mouse in the early 1900s.

The tradition has been kept alive by his descendants and the pieces are exported all over the world.

Down the years, the company has jealously guarded the unique nature of the furniture, but now the counterfeiters have moved in and show little respect for Robert Thompson's legacy.

Some of the crudely-made stools, bearing the trademark mouse but constructed to a very poor standard, appeared at a Yorkshire auction house, prompting an ongoing investigation by officers from North Yorkshire County Council Trading Standards Department.

Ian Thompson Cartwright, managing director of the company and a great-grandson of Robert, said: "We believe the pieces are being made in China then brought into England, where they are selling for less than £50, whereas our originals sell for £137.

"We are the only company licensed to make this furniture, which means we can control every aspect of what we produce. Every piece of furniture we make is produced the traditional way using great skill but the fakes are sub-standard and we believe they are produced in a sweat shop.

"We employ 40 people at Kilburn and every sale of a fake is one less sale for us, which puts jobs in jeopardy here. All our people spend money locally so if we lost jobs, that could hit the local economy. It is a big problem."

And it is not just about lost sales, it is also about loss of reputation, because Mr Thompson Cartwright fears some people may associate the company with the shoddy counterfeits.

He said: "Our furniture is made to a high standard. When you buy a piece of Mouseman furniture you are buying a family heirloom, something that will be passed down to your grandchildren, something that will have residual value.

"These fakes are of inferior quality and people are spending money on something that is worthless. And what do we do if someone turns up on our doorstep with a fake which has fallen in half or had a broken leg and wants it repairing?"

Another company suffering, despite recent trading standards prosecutions for the sale of fake DVDs and movies in its area, is Movieland, in Victoria Road, Scarborough, North Yorkshire.

Owner Dave Beck and his wife bought the video rental store, their only outlet, in 1999 and have seen counterfeiting have an increasing effect on their takings.

Mr Beck, who employs one part-time member of staff, said: "We get customers coming and looking at our shelves and saying they have seen the movie even though it has not been released.

"There is no doubt this trade is organised. I went to one market last year and there were stalls there with fakes stacked high. Sometimes, you get one or two sneaked out but these guys were open about it. It was at the time Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was coming out and there it was.

"It is not just car boot sales or markets. We are hearing people saying they bought such-and-such a fake movie in such-a-such a pub.

"The situation is getting worse and the trade costs our business money. We estimate that it has cost us two-thirds of our rental income in the past five years.

"To take an example. The same week in the year in 1999 when we bought the business brought in £3,000. Now, it is £1,800. If it were not for the fact that we have diversified into other things, like movie-related models, we would have gone out of business.

For trading standards, the cases of the Mouseman furniture and the fake movies serve to illustrate the wide range of the racket.

Ruth Taylor, section leader in fraud and special investigations for North Yorkshire County Council Trading Standards Department, said: "You name it, it can be faked. We have two high-risk areas of concern, one of which is car boot sales and Sunday markets, the other is sales over Internet auction sites."

The first concern is illustrated by a recent incident at a North Yorkshire market when officers raided a stall following a tip-off and took away five car-loads of counterfeit clothes.

Investigators believe they were mass produced abroad, probably by those with links to organised crime, given professionally-printed labels to make them look genuine, then sent out to flood the global market place.

The trading standards team, which is still investigating the incident, believes that the sale value of the seized clothing runs into tens of thousands of pounds.

Its second area of concern is underlined by the growing number of inquiries the Northallerton-based team is making after customers bought items on Internet auction sites then discovered them to be fake.

The team is conducting a number of investigations and says the online trade is growing.

Miss Taylor said: "We have come across all sorts of things being counterfeited, including tools, soaps, and the Mouseman furniture. You hear people say this is a victimless crime but there are victims because each item is taking away from sales by genuine traders like Movieland and Robert Thompson's."

She is in no doubt that organised crime is involved in much of the counterfeiting.

Miss Taylor said: "With something like CDs or DVDs, it is sometimes produced by an individual locally because it is easy money and someone gets obsessed with it but there is also an organised crime element to this. We have come across gangs operating with ringleaders.

"We have also seen counterfeiting used as a way of laundering money and a lot of the offenders operating in North Yorkshire come from outside the area."

The team has a range of options available to tackle the problem, including prosecutions under trademark and copyright legislation as well as the new laws allowing seizures of offenders' assets.

Miss Taylor said: "Our policy is to investigate and prosecute and move to seize assets wherever we can. This is a crime which is hitting genuine people's livelihoods."

Praise for team that tracked Tiffany fakes

Every trading standards unit and police force across the region has a tale to tell, but one in particular illustrates how widely the net can be thrown.

Earlier this year, renowned jewellers Tiffany, of New York, praised officers from Stockton Borough Council's trading standards team after they helped in an operation.

The inquiry began when British customs officers notified Tiffany's security manager of an airport seizure of goods bound for Stockton.

The manager contacted Stockton council's trading standards team, who traced the address to someone selling on an Internet auction site.

Another raid took place in February at an address in Feltham, near Heathrow Airport, where further counterfeit Tiffany goods were seized. The investigation is continuing.

Councillor Paul Kirton, of Stockton council, said: "Buyers must be protected from buying substandard and copy goods."

Dave McGowan, Tiffany's vice- president-security worldwide, said: "Those who traffic in phoney merchandise cheat consumers and debase the integrity of brands that have taken many decades to establish. The problem has been aggravated by Internet auction sites that enable criminals to operate counterfeit distribution rings anonymously.

"Vigilant law enforcement is essential to stamping out this form of illegal commerce that abuses trademark rights and traps unwary buyers."

Tiffany commissioned a study in 2004 of alleged Tiffany jewellery being sold on one auction site. It showed 73 per cent were counterfeit.

Illegal trade with a terrible price

The fakes racket worries big businesses and according to the national Anti-Counterfeiting Group (ACG), which works with many of the world's leading companies and trade associations, the illegal trade is worth £9bn a year.

The ACG says counterfeiting has become a highly-organised global racket dealing in everything from fake clothing, footwear, perfume and designer goods to toys, computer games, DVDs, CDs and business software.

ACG members say that a significant amount of that money is funding drug dealing and terrorism.

They are also concerned about the move away from markets, car boot sales and similar events towards Internet auction sites.

Recently, the Alliance Against Intellectual Property Theft, whose members include the ACG and trade organisations representing the music, video, software, cinema entertainment and music sectors, spent a day checking an Internet auction site.

One company team looking at one of its brands found that half of the sales involved illegal products and another company found counterfeit versions of its product worth more than £5,000 at the fake price.

They also found hundreds of pirated music products, and more than 600 items in the audio-visual sector, involving 39 sellers. According to the owners of the site in question, only a very small percentage of its sales involve fake goods, but the trade nevertheless remains concerned.

Ruth Orchard, vice-chair of the alliance and director general of the Anti-Counterfeiting Group said: "The message is clear - buyers beware. In cyberspace, fakers can vanish with your cash in seconds.

"We frequently hear from buyers that, when the item they purchased in good faith arrives, and turns out to be fake, it is impossible to find the seller or obtain a refund. We urge consumers to take extra care when buying online.

"Product counterfeiting hits everyone in the pocket. Legitimate businesses lose sales, which means fewer jobs, the Treasury loses revenue, which means less funding for our essential services, consumers are at risk from products which are not safety-tested, especially food and drink, children's clothing and toys, electrical and healthcare products.

"The only people who benefit are the shadowy figures behind the counterfeit trade who are often part of global organised crime and terrorist networks. We hope that members of the public will think about this when so many 'bargains' are on offer.

"These goods are not the bargains they may seem. In fact there is a very high price to pay. The fake trainers you buy today could fund the supply of drugs to your children tomorrow."