The party isn't due to start for eight hours, but already guests are on the phone begging to come early. "It's like a Nordstrom sale," says Anna, a 38-year-old accountant who recently played hostess to a private—and not entirely legal—gathering of 20 women at her Orange County, Calif., home. "People want to beat their friends to the prime merchandise."

She's not talking Tupperware. The goodies that will go on sale here are fake versions of designer handbags that normally sell for hundreds and even thousands of dollars in retail outlets. But at purse parties like the Feb. 10 affair at Anna's house, women are snatching up fake Fendis and Kate Spades for far less. "These purses will fall apart in six months," says one guest, Deanna, 38, while inspecting wares that a supplier had bought from a dealer in Los Angeles. But at $25 a bag, who cares?

Well, legitimate manufacturers, for one. While exact figures are hard to pinpoint, industry experts estimate they are losing millions of dollars a year to counterfeit merchandise. And as gatherings like the one in Anna's living room have become increasingly common, police in several cities have begun to crack down. "Purse parties are exploding," says Philadelphia private investigator Stuart Drobny, who has seized $150 million worth of counterfeits for high-end designers. "These women don't think it's a big deal. But it's a crime."