SALT LAKE CITY — Just days before the Super Bowl, federal officials have announced a "record breaking" bust involving fake NFL merchandise seized nationwide during a four-month sting operation.
Since Sept. 1, 2012, special agents with the Homeland Security Investigations unit of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have seized more than 160,000 items of phony Super Bowl-related memorabilia that resulted in an estimated $13.6 million being taken away from legitimate companies.
Utah agents contributed to bust
Agents in Utah played a key role in the nationwide effort called "Operation Red Zone." They were able to identify 31 websites that were selling fake NFL jerseys, hats and other merchandise, said ICE spokesman Andrew Munoz. Utah agents would pose as consumers, purchase NFL goods, have them shipped to Utah and then confirm whether they were authentic.
Operation Red Zone resulted in 313 websites being seized by law enforcers and 23 people arrested nationwide. It also resulted in agents seizing counterfeit merchandise at warehouses, swap meets and flea markets in many cities across the U.S. including Tucson, Ariz.; Cheyenne, Wyo.; Anchorage, Alaska; Memphis and Nashville, Tenn.; Boston; Dallas; Denver; Las Vegas; Detroit; San Francisco and more, Munoz said.
Fake NFL merchandise was not seized in Utah.
Those busts did not include the fake merchandise that was shipped to the U.S. and didn't make it past customs officials, Munoz said. All of the phony items seized were believed to have been manufactured outside the United States, but Munoz did not know Thursday from which country.
Counterfeiters getting more savvy
Many of the Internet sites selling the fake jerseys were run by the same person or group of people. About 10 years ago, fans might have better suspected that some websites were not legitimate because they had an unprofessional appearance and were selling NFL jerseys for dirt cheap prices.
"What we've seen over the past five or six years is that these counterfeiters are getting a lot more savvy in setting up these websites so that they do look authentic," Munoz said. "These days, a lot of these sites, they're selling them at near same prices that authentic places are selling them and the quality of the website is leading many consumers to purchase ... fake goods."
He acknowledged there might be some in the public who question why the government is spending time busting fake NFL jersey-makers, and that some would prefer buying the cheaper made, less expensive merchandise.
"They're essentially expanding their portfolio from drugs and weapons trafficking to now selling counterfeit goods because it's highly lucrative, it has a wide and a broad market they can sell to."
"You think, 'Well, what's the big deal?' There are multiple layers involved both for copyright owners and law enforcement. The copyright owners, the trademark owners, it's their right, it's their property, and it's their right to get compensated for control of the use of their brand. A lot of these brands spend millions and millions of dollars to ensure that it is trusted by the public, that there is a certain amount of quality behind those brands," he said.
Munoz said it isn't just a matter of money going into the pockets of NFL players, but employees of companies who make legitimate merchandise and whose livelihoods depend on having a job at those companies.
The other issue is criminal organizations getting into the lucrative business of sports merchandise, he said.
"They're essentially expanding their portfolio from drugs and weapons trafficking to now selling counterfeit goods because it's highly lucrative, it has a wide and a broad market they can sell to," Munoz said.
"The Super Bowl is one of the nation's most exciting events. Organized criminals are preying on that excitement, ripping consumers off with counterfeit merchandise and stealing from the American businesses who have worked hard to build a trusted brand," said ICE Director John Morton. "The sale of counterfeit jerseys and other sports items undermines the legitimate economy, takes jobs away from Americans, and fuels crime overseas."
Officials admit it's sometimes difficult for fans to tell if they've purchased an officially licensed NFL jersey or a fake one. The NFL has set-up a section on its website to help consumers spot counterfeit jerseys at www.footballfanatics.com.
Operation Red Zone was expected to continue through the weekend. Super Bowl XLVII will be held Sunday between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers.
Video contribution: Andrew Wittenberg