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    With COVID cases dropping, Chicago is fully reopening and preparing for the return of tourism, indoor dining and summer events that support retailers and businesses throughout the city. But with crime on the rise, attention must be given to ensure the safety of our residents and visitors, and this includes addressing an age-old problem that has gained new prominence: illegal trade.

    It’s especially a challenge here in Chicago, where illegal sales of products like tobacco continue to rise as criminal organizations take advantage of the high taxes and regulations that have been levied against these products. Furthermore, criminal organizations know that crimes like cigarette smuggling better their chances to fly below the radar. This only gives rise to additional nefarious activity, in which smugglers use the profits from low-risk and seemingly ‘victimless crimes’ to fund more vile activities such as drug smuggling and human trafficking. 

    This may contradict the visual one usually has when imagining illegal trade. The truth is it is much more than the sale of knockoff designer purses. These criminals will smuggle anything that will earn them a profit—like counterfeit apparel, prescription medication, and even service parts for household appliances. But they do not stop there.

    When the pandemic hit, criminals quickly maneuvered their operations to flood the market with fake and inferior personal protective equipment (PPE) and other COVID-related products. Since January 2020, online counterfeited goods jumped nearly 40 percent. Many Americans, looking to purchase PPE as the pandemic surged across the nation, inadvertently purchased these counterfeit goods that do not offer the same efficacy as genuine products.

    In a time of crisis, illegal trade actors exploited peoples’ fears and took advantage of those simply looking to protect themselves and their families. But this is just one example of the much larger and critical issue of illegal trade. Transnational crime facilitated by illegal trade is a $2.2 trillion industry that destabilizes economies and leaves hundreds of millions of people vulnerable to exploitation. For far too long, this issue has been overlooked in America. Today, it’s time to act and bring these criminal enterprises to justice.

    The pandemic has brought together government agencies and business leaders to find new solutions for fractured systems and demonstrated the potential for change when the public and private sectors unite. That same power of partnership can help turn the tide against illegal trade. That’s why we’re proud to be a part of an innovative new partnership, United to Safeguard America from Illegal Trade (USA-IT), which is empowering local officials, law enforcement, and other thought leaders with the resources and information they need to combat this crime at every level.

    Through this partnership, we aim to address the real dangers of illegal trade by providing state and local agencies, law enforcement and thought leaders with information and training programs needed to identify and prevent illegal trade. In shining a light on the devastating consequences illicit trade poses for businesses, local governments and public safety, we are able to finally foster meaningful conversations needed to combat a criminal industry that produces $509 billion a year, all while diverting vital tax dollars away from critical health and safety programs. 

    As the third largest city in the nation, Chicago serves as a hub for traffickers looking to reach the rest of the Midwest, from which the profits support crimes like human trafficking, smuggled currency and controlled substances. Given these criminals’ immense reach, especially in the last several years, more attention and training must be implemented across the state to help find new, creative ways to stop illegal trade. Only then will we have taken real steps to protect Illinoisans.

    Rob Karr is president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association.

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