NEW YORK -- Winnie the Pooh was the first to come to the attention of law enforcement officials, when customs agents seized a shipment of bubble blowers from China that illegally used the portly bear's image.
Then Dora the Explorer, SpongeBob SquarePants, Betty Boop, Mickey Mouse, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and some Power Rangers all were found trying to enter the country illegally, part of an elaborate smuggling operation of Chinese-made toys that law enforcement officials said operated for eight years, despite having shipments seized dozens of times.
Last week, the five men that the authorities say were behind the operation were charged with importing and selling counterfeit and hazardous toys.
"For years, the defendants sought to enrich themselves by importing and selling dangerous and counterfeit children's toys," said Loretta E. Lynch, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York.
In a 24-count indictment, Chenglan Hu, 51; Hua Fei Zhang, 52; and Xiu Lan Zhang, 60 (all Chinese nationals and residents of Queens); and Guan Jun Zhang, 29; and Jun Wu Zhang, 28 (both naturalized citizens and Queens residents) were charged with importing goods that violated the Consumer Product Safety Act and copyright laws, as well as smuggling and money laundering. All pleaded not guilty and released on $100,000 bond.
Although officials trumpeted the case as a triumph in the fight to protect both children and intellectual property, the indictment also makes it clear just how hard it is to stop the flood of illegal consumer goods into the United States.
The men each operated a company they used to import illegal toys, according to the indictment. Each time a shipment was seized, the responsible company would agree to abandon the goods. But they would then switch the name of the importing company, the indictment said, allowing the ring to continue.
Authorities said some of the toys had high levels of lead and contained phthalates, which has been phased out of use because of health concerns.