Why Hong Kong is a city of fakes: five recent counterfeit operations busted by customs officers

From a deceptive-fruit scandal to fake Korean cosmetic products, the city is awash with phoney merchandise. We look back at some of the biggest counterfeit capers to have shaken the city

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 April, 2018, 6:02pm
UPDATED : Friday, 27 April, 2018, 6:13pm

Owing to its proximity to China, a nation responsible for more than 86 per cent of the world’s counterfeit goods, according to a 2017 report by law enforcement agency Europol, Hong Kong is awash with fake merchandise.

While the law states that anyone convicted of importing or exporting forged goods faces a fine of up to HK$500,000 (US$64,000) and up to five years in prison, running a phoney-goods racket can be so lucrative some people think it’s worth the risk. With a Hong Kong taxi driver having been arrested on Thursdayfor scamming passengers with fake banknotes, we recalled some other counterfeit cases Hong Kong customs officers have uncovered in recent years.

Oranges

Hong Kong was rocked by a counterfeit fruit scandal in 2014, when an eagle-eyed shopper in Yuen Long, in the New Territories, complained to the Customs and Excise Department after noticing their favourite oranges were sourer and had thicker skins than usual.

It wasn’t that the oranges were fake fruit; tests by government chemists found them edible. Rather, the fakes were wrongly labelled as premium imports from American supplier Sunkist and were being sold for half the price of the quality brand.

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The proof was on the peel: the paper labels slapped on the fakes stood out from the genuine plastic ones. An intensive two-week investigation proved fruitful: detectives traced the suspicious citruses to North Africa. Two stall owners and three sales staff were arrested, and 5,200 oranges and 112,000 forged labels seized. However, the original crime syndicate was never unpeeled.

Smartphones

They say if it’s too good to be true, then it probably is – especially when it comes to suspiciously cheap smartphones. Just last week, 130 customs officers swooped on shops in Mong Kok’s famed consumer electronics Mecca Sin Tat Plaza, as well as storage units in Sham Shui Po and Causeway Bay. A total of 17 business owners and sales staff were arrested, and more than 3,000 counterfeit accessories, said to be “sophisticated imitations”, were seized, along with 100 used smartphones being sold as new.

The goods, which were worth an estimated HK$1.5 million, included Apple, Samsung, Xiaomi and Sony handsets, and were being sold for 40 to 50 per cent less than usual.

Designer handbags

Perhaps no single item better represents the global war on counterfeit goods than the designer handbag. Few travellers to Hong Kong will have made it through Tsim Sha Tsui without being offered a copy handbag, while some tourists plan trips specifically around areas famed for fake luggage.

The government is attempting to hold back the tide with frequent swoops and occasional major busts, such as a cargo-load of 6,000 fake designer bags and wallets with an estimated HK$850,000 street value intercepted in Tuen Mun in January. In 2016, an operation code-named “Torpedo” also netted 10,000 fake goods – including bags, watches and sunglasses – worth HK$5 million in a crackdown at the popular Ladies’ Market, in Mong Kok.

Chinese medicine

Hong Kong consumers were left feeling queasy after around 4,000 purported Chinese medicinal products, with a street value of HK$500,000, were seized in January this year. Customs officers broke up a crime ring that supplied local retailers with counterfeit herbal pills and medicated balms passed off as being from four brands – three Hong Kong and one Chinese. Five suspects, including a 29-year-old female ringleader, were arrested and later released on bail.

To explain why they were retailing for as little as 50 per cent of the regular Hong Kong price, consumers were told that the drugs were parallel imports from African and Southeast Asia.

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K-beauty

During a large-scale bust in December 2017, customs officers seized more than 5,200 counterfeit Korean skincare and cosmetic products purported to be from major brands including Sulwhasoo, Laneige and Innisfree.

Nine shops, including chemists and grocers, sold the very realistic fakes – including face powder, perfume, facial cleansers and facial masks – for between HK$70 and HK$800. Lab tests cleared the products of any harmful ingredients, such as heavy metals.

Twelve people were arrested, including a 31-year-old ringleader who had been storing the products in a Tsing Yi industrial building.