Operation Safe Holidays

Feds Crack Down on Imported Contraband During Holiday Shopping Rush

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Federal authorities have seized thousands of counterfeit items worth more than $5 million in a crackdown on imported contraband at Chicago's O'Hare Airport ahead of the holidays.

As shoppers rush to buy and ship last-minute gifts, thousands of parcels arriving from overseas are processed and scrutinized every day at O'Hare's sprawling International Mail Facility.

Investigators at the facility screen what's coming in year-round, but all this week, agents from Homeland Security Investigations, working with Customs and Border Protection, have engaged in an extra push to check what has arrived during the holiday rush.

"We've encountered just a plethora of items that could be potentially dangerous," said HSI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Chris Watkins.

"Operation Safe Holidays" ran from Oct. 1 through Dec. 16 this year, with a "blitz" of increased resources in its final week, federal officials say. More than 8,300 counterfeit items, including pharmaceuticals, fake designer goods, unlicensed sports memorabilia and more, were seized, with an estimated value of $5.7 million, authorities say. Five people were arrested in the effort.

Imitation Rolex watches, phony postage stamps, fake driver's licenses, knockoff Gucci and Louis Vuitton handbags, even a counterfeit Audi grill were some of the items confiscated as they made their way into the U.S. Also seized were shipments of drugs, ranging from non-approved COVID treatments like Ivermectin and Hydroxychloroquine, to Viagra and more.

Among the items recovered this week was the lower section of an AR-15 assault rifle that came from Taiwan in a package labeled "accessories set."

The agents say many things come in labeled as something they're not.

"If it says that it's shoes and you can actually hear metal clacking around in there - those are red flags," Watkins said.

Investigators say they aren't as interested in the one-offs - like a knockoff purse purchased as a gift - as they are the more dangerous items or those dealing in high volume.

"This is going to a business, a brick-and-mortar or website business, and they're moving millions of dollars worth of items, that's worth a bit more looking into, and hopefully we can do some more seizures and possibly make some arrests," Watkins said.

One such arrest during "Operation Safe Holidays" in 2019 was that of Robin Huberty, of suburban Bolingbrook.

HSI agents said they noticed a high volume of parcels containing counterfeit sports jerseys destined for Huberty's home.

Working with Will County authorities, they allowed one parcel of counterfeit goods to be delivered, then raided his house, seizing, among other things, a car and more than $162,000.

Huberty pleaded guilty to four felony counts of trademark violations last month and was ordered to pay more than $30,000 in fines and restitution.

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