US FIRMS JOIN TO STEM MEXICAN COUNTERFEITS

US FIRMS JOIN TO STEM MEXICAN COUNTERFEITS

Operation Amigo is trying to stem the flow of counterfeit goods - from automobile parts to clothing to videos - that are crossing the Mexican border into the United States.

A comprehensive joint effort by U.S. companies to guard their intellectual property, Operation Amigo was launched earlier this month in Tucson, Ariz., by the International AntiCounterfeiting Coalition. The coalition is working with an international investigative firm to slash the $500 million that U.S. companies are losing annually in Mexico because of violation of U.S. copyright laws, patents and trademarks."Counterfeiting is becoming more and more sophisticated and we're trying to match this sophistication," said John Bliss, president of the Washington- based coalition. "Right now, companies are feeding Customs information on an ad hoc basis. This is an effort to centralize the data and share it with Customs."

DATABASE PLANNED

A key part of the program is the creation of a database to serve as a clearinghouse of information needed to nab producers and shippers of counterfeit goods across the U.S.-Mexican border.

"With the Nafta, we anticipate a bigger problem as it becomes easier to ship goods across the border as the volume of trade grows," said Vince Volpi, president of PICA Corp., Columbus, Ohio. "Customs has a ton of priorities, we're focusing on one aspect. We're not dealing with drugs or illegal immigration."

PICA is an international investigation firm that works on a variety of corporate security issues, from insurance fraud to executive protection.

NAFTA A FACTOR

The sealing of the North American Free Trade Agreement is also expected to increase the volume of transshipments passing through Mexico from the Pacific Rim. Operation Amigo is intended to head off both the counterfeit and original goods that are transshipped through Mexico so they can carry a "Made in Mexico" label and avoid the quotas and tariffs paid on products imported from Asia, Mr. Volpi said.

A U.S. Customs spokeswoman said the federal agency applauded the coalition's effort and welcomed any additional help to apprehend the producers of counterfeit goods.

"We're not sending anyone out to work side-by-side with them . . . but we're happy to receive information," said Judy Turner, a spokeswoman for U.S. Customs' Southwest region.

THREE-STEP PLAN

Mr. Volpi said the initial thrust of "Operation Amigo's" three-pronged effort is to give Customs officials the information they need to help them recognize illegal goods at the border. The second step is to work with Mexican authorities, including the attorney general's office and the government's new intellectual property institute, to get their help. The third effort is to adopt a pro-active stance and complete proper investigations with the help of Mexican law enforcement agencies to get results for U.S. companies.

Robert S. Ogden, vice president and counsel in the consumer products division at the Walt Disney Co., said he saw the program as a way for companies to work together to fight counterfeits. Mr. Ogden works in the New York office of the Burbank, Calif., entertainment company.