Introducing the latest accessory to organised crime: fake handbags

But today, at Britain's largest outdoor market near Harlow, Essex, bags in the familiar chocolate leather and gold LV monogram - an international symbol of luxury - will be on sale for less than £10.

Despite the "genuine" logos, everyone knows that these are counterfeit goods. And it is not just Louis Vuitton: copies of all the top-end designer handbags are available at the North Weald market and hundreds of other street stalls around Britain, not to mention the eBay website and others like it.

Thousands of shoppers a week buy a fake handbag, on the basis that a little harmless copying of a luxury label never did any harm to anyone.

It is this assumption that is being challenged by experts, who are warning that the trade in counterfeit goods is based on sweatshops, virtual slavery and child labour and is used to financeterrorism and organised crime.

A report by Interpol found that groups such as al-Qa'ida were using the sales of counterfeit goods in Britain to fund their activities. Fake handbags can be as lucrative as drug smuggling, according to the report.

In fact, handbags are even more attractive than drugs because the trade is low risk, with paltry penalties for counterfeiting and less scrutiny by police.

The report concluded: "Interpol is sounding the alarm that Intellectual Property Crime is becoming the preferred method of funding for a number of terrorist groups.

"There are enough examples now of the funding of terrorist groups in this way for us to worry about the threat to public safety. We must take preventive measures now."

The first Global Congress on Combating Counterfeiting took place in Rome last October, when experts from countries around the world presented findings of the extent of counterfeit goods.

Nine per cent of all world trade is now in fake goods, the congress found. In the UK alone, 1.54 million counterfeit goods were seized by customs officials in 2003, an eightfold increase in the past five years.

Experts believe that almost 100 million fakes are sold in Britain every year. Fake goods are estimated to cost UK businesses more than £6bn a year.

Ruth Orchard, the director general of the Anti-Counterfeiting Group (ACG) in the UK, said: "If you talk about counterfeit goods, people tend to think of a "Del Boy" market stall where you can pick up a bit of a bargain that doesn't really hurt anyone, but nothing could be further from the truth. When I started this job, I was staggered by the scale of the thing, and it has grown exponentially in the last few years, partly because of the links with organised crime and terrorism.

"It may not happen all the time, but if you buy a fake designer handbag, you are indirectly financing serious, organised crime and groups like al-Qa'ida. This is the message that we have now got to get across."

Counterfeit goods are also likely to have been made in sweatshop conditions, according to Ms Orchard. "Where there is fiddly work to be done, like sewing on beads to handbags, people will often use children because they have smaller hands and work faster," she said. "We have heard of one situation in China where people were locked into the factory for a month and forced to work to get an order out."

Research by the ACG found that the fake goods market's keenest customers were not from the lowest social classes, but were young well-off women earning around £35,000 a year. Ms Orchard said: "Saying it is OK to buy a fake handbag needs to be a thing of the past."

The fast-selling counterfeits

ABELT BAG - Gucci

The real thing sells for £120, but replicas can be bought for less than £5. In a crackdown on counterfeits in Italy, a woman with a fake Gucci handbag was given a €10,000 fine.

DMURAKAMI BAG - Louis Vuitton

Among the most copied items by counterfeiters. LVMH, which makes the genuine article, employs a team to investigate fake goods sold on websites.

ASAUSAGE BAG - Burberry

Popular in the Far East, where most counterfeit goods are made. Burberry believes it has suffered because replicas have become a "chav" favourite.

Arts and Entertainment
Kirk Cameron is begging his Facebook fans to give him positive reviews
film
Sport
premier leagueMatch report: Arsenal 1 Man United 2
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Sport
Jonny May scores for England
rugby unionEngland 28 Samoa 9: Wing scores twice to help England record their first win in six
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

Immigration: Obama's final frontier

The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

You know that headache you’ve got?

Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

Scoot commute

Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

The Paul Robeson story

How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
10 best satellite navigation systems

Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

Paul Scholes column

England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

Frank Warren column

Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

'How do you carry on? You have to...'

The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

Sir John Major hits out at theatres

Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

Kicking Barbie's butt

How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines