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Unlicensed Street Vendors Return As New York City Reopens, Angering Some Business Owners

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- As New York City reopens, tourism is slowly returning, but so are unlicensed street vendors.

Some people in Chinatown and SoHo say the so-called fake bag bonanza is taking over their neighborhoods in a way they've never seen before.

Tourist Felicia Waller, from North Carolina, showed CBS2's Lisa Rozner the bogus bling she picked up on Canal Street near Broadway -- a Rolex watch for $60 and a Louis Vuitton wristlet for $40.

"They kinda bombard you and try to get you to buy," Waller said.

"We got some Louis Vuitton, and some, I think we got a Gucci purse or something," said Kevin Willis, who is visiting from Jamaica. "We're looking more for affordability."

The pickup in tourism is harmonious with what locals say is a pickup in peddlers, who scrammed as soon as CBS2's cameras showed up.

Eric Penn says it's hurting businesses like his. He owns the SoHo Market on Broadway near Howard Street. The shop is filled with independent vendors.

"We chase them away. People coming up are constantly being accosted. You can't even walk on the sidewalk there," he said. "We all pay rent. We all have legitimate sales tax IDs."

Locals say empty storefronts that accumulated throughout the pandemic have made it easier for illegal vendors to set up shop.

"The sidewalk technically belongs to the property owner," said Wellington Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Business Improvement District.

Penn says in the past, when police confiscated illegal goods, it made a difference, at least for a short time.

In December, however, the mayor said it's not their job to patrol unlicensed vendors anymore and they "must be able to focus on the real drivers of crime."

The announcement followed controversial illegal vendor arrests, including a woman who was selling churros at a Brooklyn subway station in 2019.

DCPW says it is now the lead enforcement agency, "but if a vendor is unlicensed or vending on restricted streets and does not provide ID or leave the restricted area, NYPD will be in the area to assist."

It says since June 1, DCWP has conducted 433 vending inspections and issues 226 violations.

"They tear 'em up. They don't pay 'em," Penn said.

The Urban Justice Center's Street Vendor Project says, "While DCWP has taken over as the main coordinating agency for street vending enforcement, the NYPD still enforces certain aspects, including the sale of counterfeit merchandise."

The Project's legal director shared a January memo from the NYPD to officers that reads:

"The Department will continue to respond to, address, and enforce complaints regarding trademark counterfeiting. Members are reminded to request the patrol supervisor for all arrest situations and follow appropriate Patrol Guide procedures regarding arrest processing.

"If DCWP observes, or is notified of, a trademark counterfeiting issue, they will refer it to the Operations Division. Trademark counterfeiting complaints from DCWP will be forwarded to the appropriate precinct for a follow-up investigation by neighborhood coordination officers."

Rozner approached several street vendors. They said they only take cash and offered to take her to a back room down an alley to see the merchandise.

"It's a concern for all of us, so when you say what is there that we can do at City Council, we can push City Hall to make sure that if DCWP is going to be the oversight agency, that they're properly staffed to do so," said Councilman Mark Gjonaj.

A spokesperson at DCWP released the following statement:

"The Office of Street Vendor Enforcement was officially placed at DCWP in March 2021 and, under the law, it must be fully operational by September 2021. DCWP is ahead of schedule but is in the process of hiring additional enforcement staff. DCWP currently has 12 staff members dedicated to conducting vending inspections and is hiring approximately 12 additional inspectors for this team.

"In areas where illegal vending persist following education and enforcement, DCWP will continue to explore alternative enforcement strategies. For example, in response to recent issues, DCWP is now working with NYPD to enforce illegal vending in Times Square. DCWP is the lead enforcement agency but if a vendor is unlicensed or vending on restricted streets and does not provide ID or leave the restricted area, NYPD will be in the area to assist. DCWP has partnered with NYPD in other areas and will continue working with NYPD as needed.

"NYPD enforces against counterfeit goods."

Local businesses hope the new mayor will intervene on the issue.

This post was originally published on July 15 and has since been updated. 

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