Tue, Oct 25, 2011 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE: HK private eye goes undercover to fight phoney goods


Private eye Ted Kavowras holds fake US$20 bills while wearing a mask in his office in Hong Kong on Thursday.

Photo: AFP

Like any good private eye, Hong Kong-based Ted Kavowras has a range of whisky bottles by his desk, but these aren’t for swigging between jobs — they’re samples of counterfeit spirits whose makers he has helped shut down.

He and his detective firm Panoramic Consulting occupy a growing niche in the fight against China’s mammoth fake goods industry, posing as buyers to enter factories and gather evidence that can lead to fines, arrests and shutdowns.

From an office littered with disguises and bling accessories containing hidden cameras, he and his staff travel to China in the guise of Middle Eastern businessmen, shady European traders or Latin Americans seeking a quick buck.

“I’m everybody’s dream in China, some rich fat guy,” the beard-sporting former New York Police Department (NYPD) officer said. “The bigger the lie, the more they believe it.”

His firm has been in ever greater demand as China has become not only the workshop of the world, but the source of more than two-thirds of its counterfeit products.

Often working on behalf of high-profile brands such as New Balance sportswear and Bulova designer watches, the firm has put together cases against manufacturers of illicit goods from toilet seats to handbags to medicines.

Its staff of 10 operates from a tiny Hong Kong office, plus discreet premises in China and an array of front companies used to convince factories that their interest in purchasing is genuine.

“I do what Chinese investigators can’t do, because I have the ethnic diversity. They can’t pretend to be buyers from overseas,” Kavowras said.

A row of costume heads in his office, modeled to look like members of staff, wear elaborate fake hairstyles and hats, while several fax machines used for different front companies beep regularly with messages from eager sellers.

Kavowras displays video footage of a recent case in which he and his colleagues lured a group making counterfeit injectable drugs to meet them in a southern Chinese hotel.

The criminals were confident enough to sit down, light cigarettes and hand over a consignment of fake medicines in exchange for a wad of foreign currency — not realizing police were watching from the next room on a live camera feed.

On a signal from Kavowras, police stormed the room, but the counterfeiters sat quietly, realizing the game was up.

“China’s a very civilized place, it’s not the Wild West,” Kavowras said.

However, that does not mean the counterfeiters are not dangerous.

These fake drugs “were causing injuries all over the world,” he said.

China has faced accusations, including from the US, that it does not do enough to fight counterfeiting and intellectual property theft.

Kavowras says markets for illicit consumer goods operate openly in Shenzhen, with wholesalers grading their wares from A to C. Top-grade fakes are made in the same factory as the originals.

However, he said that Chinese police and trademark authorities have a genuine desire to fight the problem, and praised changes to the law that have allowed civil litigation on counterfeiting and admitted notarized evidence.

“They’re really doing their best — they’re overwhelmed, and in some places, given the vastness and population density of the country, there are issues with corruption. But overall the Chinese are reacting to it as much as possible,” Kavowras said. “People forget that China is a poor country.”

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