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France's Draconian Counterfeit Customs Laws: Fake Handbag Laws & Risks

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    Why You Should Leave Your Designer Clothing at Home

    Every country has their laws that seem unjust and that clearly don’t benefit the public. It’s important to know about these laws before you travel so you can avoid ruining your vacation (or your life!)

    You may have heard that counterfeits are illegal in France, but it’s important to fully understand what this means. Customs officers have the right to seize anything they ‘suspect’ is a fake / counterfeit, fine you and charge you with a criminal offense. As we explain below, if you’re wearing anything with a logo, authentic or not, you run this risk.

    Why You Should Leave Your Designer Clothing at Home - fake hangbags france counterfeit laws unethical
    Customs has the right to inspect and potentially take any item bearing a brand name or logo

    Because of this law, we recommend that you do not purchase or wear any product that bears a trademarked logo or style while in France.

    Will You Get Caught?

    If you’re wondering if customs officers can spot a fake — they can. They get training yearly from the major brands and they are actively on the lookout. If you’re wearing something with a logo on it, there’s a risk that a customs officer will take it.

    There are stories posted on sites like TripAdvisor of tourists who’ve had sunglasses ripped from their faces on the street and snapped in half. Many tourists have left the airport with their belongings in a box after their counterfeit bags or suitcases were taken from them at the airport. There are also roadside checkpoints, where customs officers search cars, like the one at the Roquebrune highway exit near Monaco set up to catch people who bought counterfeit items in Italy.

    In 2021, 9.1 million counterfeit products of all kind were seized by the nearly 17,000 French customs officers, including 721,380 items of clothing, 316,746 shoes and 133,063 fashion accessories. Nice Customs alone, seized and destroyed 170,000 counterfeit products in 2021, which is 170% more than in 2020.

    The Risks Are Not Small

    By wearing anything with a logo (including even items like Nike sneakers), you open yourself up to being searched. And not just at the airport. If a customs officer (even one who is off-duty or ‘under cover’) decides to check your clothing for authenticity, they can force you to give them the item of clothing, whether it’s your bag, your watch, your shoes or your sundress. They then have the power to take it, and there’s not really anything you can do about it.

    The law says that it doesn’t matter if you can prove that it was sold as authentic.

    And if they fine you, it’s a secondary crime not to pay the fine immediately, even if you can’t afford it. And the fines stack up.

    They can also then, without a warrant, search your hotel room or residence. In France, the powers of customs officers exceeds even the police in some ways.

    And that’s not all. Customs notifies the brand of the fake items (and discloses your name, address and what you ordered), and that brand then has the right to initiate separate, additional proceedings before a civil or criminal court.

    Why You Should Leave Your Designer Clothing at Home - fake hangbags france counterfeit laws
    Ads that were in French airports in 2012

    The law says that it doesn’t matter if you can prove that it was sold as authentic. It doesn’t matter if it has an authenticity card or if it was a gift. If a customs or police officer grabs your bag and says it’s ‘counterfeit’, it’s still a crime just as if you paid €20 from a street vendor who told you it’s fake.

    A total of 9.1 million counterfeit goods were seized by French customs in 2021 alone.

    Is There Any Way to be Safe?

    According to the French customs officers we spoke with, the only way to be safe from criminal prosecution is to only shop at the official brand boutiques, and to always carry the authenticity card and receipt.

    Even then, if an employee at the boutique swapped out the authentic bag for a counterfeit (and nowadays even professional authenticators have trouble telling the difference) without you knowing, like famously happened for years with Hermes, then you’re still committing a crime and can be fined, have the item confiscated, get a criminal record, and even potentially be sent to jail.

    This super-harsh law means that, in France, it’s not safe (if the item has a logo on it) to:

    • wear anything that you bought at any of the markets,
    • shop at consignment shops (even famous ones like The RealReal),
    • shop online,
    • buy used or shop on eBay (where 90% of Louis Vuitton and Dior items sold are counterfeit),
    • buy from stores that sell multiple brands,
    • accept any gift or package from friends (in fact, you don’t even need to accept it for you to be charged with a crime — they just have to mail it with you as the recipient!),
    • or even buy from official boutique, in case someone working there swaps the item for a counterfeit.
    Why You Should Leave Your Designer Clothing at Home - fake hangbags france counterfeit laws unethical 1
    It’s impossible for a regular consumer to tell

    The Law Hurts People Who Are Unaware

    This law applies to everything from smartphones to handbags to medicine to cigarettes to ink cartridges. Given that, it would not be unreasonable to assume that most of the counterfeits sold are to people who have no idea that the item is counterfeit.

    If you think “it was advertised as the real thing. Surely I won’t get in trouble for accidentally buying fake sneakers or ink cartridges on Amazon!?” you’d be wrong. The law states that even if you thought the items were authentic, you will still be charged with committing a crime.

    So those Hermes customers who paid the normal Hermes prices and bought what they thought were legit bags from Hermes employees working at a Hermes store? In France, not only the ex-Hermes employees, but also those Hermes customers, committed a crime.

    Police and Customs here have sweeping authority to search you, your car and your home for counterfeit products, without the type of warrant or authorization that’s required in countries like the USA. The bottom line is that

    Many counterfeits are sold on major platforms like Amazon, where consumers assume the items have been vetted. But Nike pulled their sneakers from Amazon because so many counterfeits were being sold on the platform. Chanel has sued several of the largest and most reputable online consignment stores, like The RealReal, for selling counterfeits and telling customers that they’ve been authenticated. Even Target (one of the largest American chain stores) was sued by Coach for selling fake handbags.

    Why You Should Leave Your Designer Clothing at Home - fake hangbags france counterfeit laws unethical 1 1

    Multiple experts recently told Vogue UK that these higher-quality fakes are made in the same factories as the authentic bags. “Sometimes the factory will produce 10,000 of a product and then make 2,000 on the run and sell them off cheaply,” Cassandra Hill, a lawyer at Mishcon de Reya specializing in intellectual-property litigation, told the magazine.

    “Folks will be shopping on marketplaces and think they’re buying a secondhand, expensive handbag and it’s a fake,” explains the International Trademark Association President, Bob Barchiesi. There are also standalone websites designed to look like authentic retailers to deceive shoppers that even use photos of authentic products, says Barchiesi, only to ship fake ones.

    ”Consumers think these online sellers are [legitimate] brand-name outlet stores [located in Europe] while in reality they are not even located in Europe but in China.” explains Saija Kivimäki, lawyer at the European Consumer Centre. Kivimäki says that it is increasingly difficult to recognize websites selling counterfeit products as the number of sites has surged, with some of them now looking very convincing.

    A customs officer explained that with ‘superfake’ counterfeit apparel, “The quality is getting better. Sometimes these factories, especially in China, it’s the same factory that’s making the good for the brand owner is also making the counterfeits.” Another customs officer told WWD that “More often than you would think, they are ‘legitimate’ offshore contract manufacturers of the genuine goods, who are running a ‘third shift’ that goes out the back door to a friend or relative who runs the distribution of the counterfeit goods.”

    Fakes have become more sophisticated, with some looking and feeling so close to the real thing that it’s borderline impossible to figure out.

    As Fashionista reported: “Fakes are getting more realistic. While distinguishing a fake from a real handbag used to be a fairly straightforward and easily Google-able process, there’s been an explosion of what some are calling ‘super fakes’, ‘Triple-A fakes’ or ‘line-for-lines’ over the past five or so years. To the untrained eye, they look like the real thing. You might even have one yourself and not know it. Our own Alyssa was once told by The RealReal that her Balenciaga bag — which she purchased at a prominent luxury retail chain and had no reason to doubt the authenticity of — was fake,” and “Fakes have become more sophisticated, with some looking and feeling so close to the real thing that it’s borderline impossible to figure out.”

    Despite this, this outdated and super-harsh law says that you are committing a crime “regardless of whether the infringement is intentional.” And the onus is on the consumer to somehow be able to tell if an item is authentic or not. The Customs website gives several unhelpful tips for how to tell counterfeit from authentic, in an attempt to lay the blame on the consumer. This is incredibly unrealistic, given that

    Want the law changed? Contact the EU Council via social media and their online form to tell them that you want an EU-wide law that decriminalizes possession of counterfeits.

    French Counterfeit Law Hurts the Working Class

    Let’s be real. The vast majority of people buying counterfeit items — knowingly or not — are low-income people who are looking to save money. These are exactly the people who will go into debt to pay off these unreasonable fines imposed by Customs.

    Picture this: a father is looking for a sold-out toy and, after fruitlessly checking in stores, turns to online, where he finds the toy on eBay. He orders it, hoping to surprise his daughter. But the package is intercepted by Customs and he instead receives a terrifying notice that he has committed a crime and is due at Customs for a criminal hearing. He then hires a lawyer for €5000 (the going rate) who accompanies him to the Customs hearing, but is unable to get the criminal charges or fine dropped because, as the customs officer explains, “your name is on the box”.

    For another example, a daughter is taking care of her mother, who is sick. The prescription medicine is expensive at the local pharmacy, so she goes online to buy it, where it’s cheaper. Customs seizes the package and the same thing happens to her.

    Or a teenager who saves up his allowance to buy Nike sneakers on Amazon, thinking (wrongly) that anything purchased via a major retailer is safe. He’s proud of himself, and excited to show off his new kicks on the Promenade d’Anglais, but within an hour a customs officer spots him, takes his shoes, and he walks home barefoot, crying. A week later he receives an summons to attend a criminal hearing, where he’s charged with a fine he can’t afford.

    When counterfeit items get caught by Customs, the person whose name is on the box is then forced to go to a criminal hearing, is charged with a crime, and fined (up to €300,000). But anyone can see that it seems cruel to heavily fine and jail a low income person for trying to buy things at lower cost, most of whom don’t know that the item is counterfeit.

    This law directly contradicts what France is supposed to stand for: protecting the working class. Instead, it protects mega-corporations at the expense of the working class (and everyone else).

    The Law is Ripe for Abuse

    Given that customs officers merely need to have the ‘suspicion’ of the item being a fake, and can take potentially authentic and expensive items from anyone, with the threat of court dates, lawyer fees, jail time and massive fines, this law is perfectly set up for potential abuse.

    And given that many brands make it impossible to retroactively get a record of your purchases, even when purchased from the designer brand boutiques (and you definitely can’t get a replacement authenticity card), even people with authentic designer items can have a hard time proving that their items are authentic.

    Even if someone mails you a package as a gift (and you can prove it), and you have absolutely nothing to do with the purchasing of it, Customs may seize it and you will still be charged with a crime and fined, simply because your name is on the box. And if your ‘friend’ keeps mailing you counterfeits? The fines and jail time increase with each instance. Obviously, this could be used maliciously.

    Flawed Justification Behind Law

    The justification for these laws is flawed. Officers do the bidding of luxury brands, are trained by the luxury brands, and take fines on behalf of these brands based on the idea that each euro spent on a fake bag is a euro that the company could’ve otherwise had in profit. But the truth is that nearly all of the people who buy counterfeit do it because they can’t afford the authentic items, so this is a false justification.

    As the legal counsel for eBay stated when a French court fined them for not doing enough to police the sale of counterfeits: “Today’s decisions are not about fighting counterfeiting. It’s about LVMH’s desire to protect commercial practices that exclude all competition.” In other words, the brands are trying to kill the resale market.

    This law seems designed to help brands to eliminate the resale market and any competition to their official boutiques.

    The advice of customs officers is to destroy any item that bears a logo, including clothing, jewelry, bags and even electronics, that weren’t purchased at that brand’s official boutique and for which you don’t have a (verifiable, from the official boutique) receipt and authenticity certificate for. This parrots what luxury fashion brands want, as luxury brands famously hate the resale market, eco-consciousness be damned.

    The Catch-22 is that most brands, like Chanel, refuse to give a certificate of authenticity after the purchase, an after-purchase copy of the receipt, or a list of past purchases to customers (they will “only provide it directly to insurance companies”). Customers have accounts with luxury brands that have a list of their purchases, so why would they refuse a customer’s request for a copy of this list? Clearly, they are trying to quash the resale market.

    A Better Way

    When this law was created, it was much easier to tell if something was fake. Nowadays it’s nearly impossible, even according to the President of the International Trademark Association. Clearly, this law needs to be updated to remove criminal and financial liability from consumers, and place it all on the sellers.

    Counterfeiting may account for as much as 7% of world trade, according to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Nevertheless, luxury brands are recording record profits and record demand year after year. The CEO of LVMH (the conglomerate that owns many luxury fashion brands, and is a major partner with the French government on anti-counterfeit punishment) is the world’s richest human. He’s wealthier than Jeff Bezos, and yet massive amounts of French taxpayer money goes to helping him impose fines on poor French people and unsuspecting tourists.

    “Fake luxury goods are the most visible… but we estimate that they amount to about 5% of the global market for counterfeits,” said Marc-Antoine Jamet, head of Union des Fabricants, a French manufacturers’ association. “Despite countless raids, airport interceptions, lawsuits by luxury brands and entire coalitions dedicated to curbing the production and stateside distribution of these illegal counterfeit products, like the International Anti-Counterfeit Coalition (IACC), the market is thriving and even advancing,” Fashionista reports.

    So why spend so much taxpayer money going after regular people and tourists who wear fake sneakers or bags? Why not focus all the effort on the sellers? Clearly, given that the counterfeit market keeps increasing (as is the market for authentics), going after regular citizens is not an effective solution.

    Lawyer Naree Chan said that while selling counterfeit products is “illegal in the U.S., the laws currently do not punish someone for buying counterfeits. In fact, the laws assume consumers are innocently being duped and try to protect honest Americans from the bad intentions of manufacturers looking to make a quick buck.” This is a much more compassionate and ethical way to approach the issue of counterfeits.

    Given that this hurts tourism (would you come back to a place that took your belongings, fined you, and told you that next time you could end up in jail?), we feel that this law urgently needs changing. We hope that someday the EU will see this and change the laws to protect both the public and the brands.

    Want the law changed? Contact the EU Council via social media and their online form to tell them that you want an EU-wide law that decriminalizes possession of counterfeits.

    What To Do…

    If you are in trouble with Customs, they will tell you that you need to attend an official criminal hearing, likely with 2 or 3 Customs officers present. They will read you your rights, tell you that you are committing perjury if you lie, and then spend a couple of hours asking you the same questions in multiple ways. It’s your choice if you want a lawyer to accompany you, but it’s not required.

    …If Customs Took Your Authentic Item

    As a lawyer who is familiar with customs cases, Karine Disdier-Mikus told us: “Recourse can be possible especially if the product seized is an authentic product and not a counterfeit. If the owner believes it is authentic but it isn’t, the transaction with customs is likely to occur with a seizure of the product with or without a fine. If it actually is authentic, then the owner will have to demonstrate this by providing the authentic invoice. Following a custom control, it is possible to submit a written complaint to the register of the customs service concerned. Should no satisfactory answer be received, a complaint can be submitted to the Mediator of the economic and financial ministries through a form. It is also possible to challenge a decision according to Article 44 of the Union Custom Code.”

    Wondering what customs does with all the authentic items they take from people? Auction them off, of course.

    More reading: Here’s a list of things you can’t bring into France, and the associated penalties. Here’s the details of the law.

    Want the law changed? Contact the EU Council via social media and their online form to tell them that you want an EU-wide law that decriminalizes possession of counterfeits.

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