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Illegal Trade Knows No Borders. Let’s Collaborate To Stop It.

In the midst of a once-in-a-generation pandemic, other problems —some of which exist beneath the surface, beyond the public eye —that also negatively impact our communities were exacerbated. Namely, the dangerous proliferation of illegal trade. As retailers, we know that illegal trade is an age-old problem in Florida and Pennsylvania, and for our industries across the nation. Now more than ever, we need new solutions to fight it.

Both our states share vast transportation infrastructure that serves as major hubs for both legal and illegal goods. Our ports are some of the busiest in the world, serving as ideal gateways for drugs and other contraband to flow into our states. According to the latest Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) data, Florida had the largest amount of cocaine seizures by weight in 2019, while Pennsylvania was third. These kinds of activities threaten our state and our communities. Beyond the social costs that are typically associated with illegal trade, there are also significant costs to taxpayers. Take for example, the illegal tobacco trade, which robs the Florida and Pennsylvania state governments of a whopping $174 million and $185 million a year, respectively.

Many often misunderstand or underestimate the complex and severe problem of illegal trade, thinking that crimes like selling counterfeit sneakers or tobacco smuggling are victimless and don’t warrant enforcement action. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Bad actors like drug cartels and international terror organizations smuggle seemingly benign commodities that fly under the radar to help finance their darker, wide-spread criminal enterprises. They know that these commodities draw less attention, so it’s easier to get away with it. The reality is that the criminals selling knockoff designer goods are often connected to the criminals trafficking drugs, weapons, and even human beings. 

From 2007 to 2019, both Florida and Pennsylvania ranked in the top 10 for reported cases of human trafficking. We cannot let these terrifying, reprehensible crimes continue.

Unfortunately, illegal trade has surged during the pandemic. Bad actors have taken advantage of the crisis and capitalized on the low supply and high demand of personal protective equipment (PPE). At the onset of the pandemic, many Americans were simply trying to protect themselves and bought what they thought were legitimate masks and other PPE but ended up buying counterfeited products that were ineffective and failed to deliver what was promised. In fact, since January 2020, online counterfeited goods, including PPE, jumped nearly 40%.

The problem of illegal trade is not limited to the pandemic. Transnational crime facilitated by illegal trade is a massive $2.2 trillion global industry. Illegal trade, no matter what the commodity, is all bound by a shared, nefarious purpose: making money. Criminals will traffic anywhere with anything that earns them a profit. In doing so, they also undermine the natural order of our ecosystems, businesses, and societies by making illicit drugs and weapons more accessible and spurring instability and danger in our communities.

Fortunately, thanks to a surge of new technology and the willingness of public and private stakeholders to help, we have the tools we need to fight back together. That’s why we’ve joined United to Safeguard America from Illegal Trade (USA-IT). USA-IT is an initiative led by national and state brand enforcement experts, law enforcement agencies, and leading business organizations to create awareness of the consequences of illegal trade and empower local officials and law enforcement with information and training programs to better confront perpetrators and keep communities safe.

Tackling illegal trade is not an easy task, but it is a crucial one if we are to protect our communities, our businesses, and our country. No one government or single industry, like the retail industry, can address this complex and multifaceted problem on its own. We all have a role to play, and partnerships like USA-IT are key to stopping illegal trade and creating a more fair, secure, and prosperous future for both the Sunshine State and the Keystone State. 

Scott Shalley is president and CEO of the Florida Retail Federation. John Holub is executive director of the Pennsylvania Retailers’ Association.

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