MACON — A Thomasville business owner accused of trafficking in counterfeit car parts made in China pleaded guilty Friday to the crime, Middle District of Georgia U.S. Attorney Charles Peeler said.
Drexel C. Benton, 71, of Thomasville, entered a guilty plea for trafficking in counterfeit goods before Senior U.S. District Judge Hugh Lawson in Macon. This charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment, a $2 million maximum fine and up to three years supervised release. A sentencing date has not been set.
“Legitimate businesses work hard and invest significant resources to build a brand. Those who choose to deal in counterfeit goods are stealing the brand recognition and goodwill that businesses work so hard to develop,” Peeler said. “This office has made it a priority to protect businesses and consumers from counterfeit goods, whether from China or anywhere else in the world.
“I want to thank the investigative efforts of the Department of Homeland Security and the United States Customs and Border Protection for helping close down this illegal operation.”
Background information in the signed plea agreement said that in January of 2017, a special agent with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Investigative Division began an investigation on leads showing the defendant was importing and selling counterfeit car parts from Chinese manufacturers at his Thomasville business, EZ Dealin, as well as on Ebay, where EZ Dealin was listed as a tire and rim “power seller” with a 20,000-square-foot warehouse selling replica car parts from American car companies.
Court officials said EZ Dealin had more than 7,000 positive feedbacks on Ebay, indicating thousands of transactions. HSI conducted an undercover operation at EZ Dealin in February of 2017, noting a much smaller warehouse than advertised — an estimated 24-feet-long by 24-feet-wide — filled to a quarter of its capacity with numerous brand wheels and tires. An employee showed the agents two types of GMC wheels with center caps displaying the GMC emblem.
Concurrently, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers conducted three separate legal seizures of parcels from China to EZ Dealin from November of 2016 to April of 2017. The individual parcels contained 540 automotive wheel center caps with counterfeit GMC and Chevrolet emblems, 560 automotive wheel center caps with counterfeit GMC and Chevrolet emblems and 300 automotive rim center caps with counterfeit Chevrolet and Cadillac emblems.
Brand protection investigators from both Ford Motor Company and General Motors cooperated in the investigation. In March of 2017, a private investigative firm hired by Ford conducted an Ebay online purchase of rims and center caps from EZ Dealin for $1,978. Officials said the purchased items bore counterfeit Ford emblems, while GMC’s brand investigator reviewed and provided a list of 21 counterfeit Chevrolet and GMC parts then listed for sale by EZ Dealin on Ebay.
Financial analysis of subpoenaed PayPal information indicates that Benton conducted approximately $590,553.32 in transactions from April 12, 2017 until Aug. 8, 2017. There were 26 transfers of funds from the PayPal account number into Benton’s private bank account totaling $688,000 during that period. On Dec. 5, 2017, HSI and Thomas County Sheriff’s Office deputies executed search warrants at three locations associated with Benton and EZ Dealin, finding 5,782 parts bearing the registered trademarks of Chevrolet, GMC, Cadillac, Ford and Dodge.
“Criminal networks are working daily to fool the public with illegally imported counterfeit goods, some of which pose a grave threat to public safety,” Nick Annan, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations Atlanta, said. “Anyone who may think counterfeiting is a victimless crime needs look no further than cases such as this. Persons rely on automotive parts, and when inferior counterfeit parts fail, the drivers who were exploited may be involved in accidents causing serious injury or death.
“HSI is appreciative of the U.S. Attorney’s partnership in this case and will continue to work with our law enforcement partners to identify and prosecute criminal counterfeiters who threaten public safety.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert McCullers is prosecuting the case for the federal government.