SAN BERNARDINO — An elaborate operation responsible for counterfeiting and selling more than $20-million worth of big-name perfumes has been broken, law enforcement officials announced here Wednesday.
Confiscated bottles of ersatz fragrance, which on first glance appear virtually identical to the originals, were displayed at a press conference attended by officials of the San Bernardino and Riverside counties sheriff's departments and investigators and executives representing the $3.7-billion-a-year fragrance industry.
Suspects made and bottled imitations of the expensive perfumes Giorgio of Beverly Hills, Chanel No. 5, Christian Dior's Obsession and Jean Patou's Joy at the E. Bemben Co. in Indio, San Bernardino County Sheriff Floyd Tidwell said. The labels were printed at Azteca Printing Co. in Fontana and at least some of the elegant bottles were replicated in Taiwan, he said.
Distributed nationwide through swap meets and discount stores, which officials refused to identify, the products sometimes sold for almost as much as the originals--up to $175 an ounce, Tidwell said.
No arrests have been made, although the investigators will ask the Riverside County district attorney's office to file conspiracy charges against suspects Edward Bemben, 62, of Indio, David Pina Pandeli, 61, of Fontana, and James Wallace, 65, of Milpitas in Northern California, Tidwell said.
The investigation began in 1986 when customs agents in New York City discovered imitations of Giorgio perfume and advised the perfume maker, said Al Vetter, Giorgio's director of corporate security.
Vetter's detective work led him to Taiwan, where at least some of the counterfeit bottles were made, and then back to Southern California. On Oct. 6 and 7, search warrants were served in Fontana, Indio and Milpitas, Tidwell said.
In Indio, investigators confiscated about 50,000 bottles of fake perfume. At various locations, they also seized cutting dies for boxes and silk screens for labels.
Despite initial appearances, the bogus products have various flaws that distinguish them from the originals. For instance, the word Giorgio is misspelled on the inside of the counterfeit box.
Vetter estimated that it cost the counterfeiters about one-tenth as much to create the fake perfumes as it does the originals, and said that the scents "don't come close" to the real thing.
Tidwell said the counterfeiters probably had "at least some understanding of the chemistry" involved in creating perfumes, and admitted that he could not smell the difference between the real and fake products.
He added, however, "I guarantee, most any lady can tell you whether that's her favorite perfume" or a counterfeit.