Feds Announce Record-Breaking Bust of Counterfeit NFL Gear

Authorities arrested 23 people and seized 313 Web sites during a four-month nationwide investigation.

WASHINGTON — Federal authorities said Thursday they have seized a record-breaking $13.6 million of counterfeit National Football League merchandise, arrested 23 people and seized 313 Web sites during a four-month nationwide investigation.

This story first appeared in the February 1, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Authorities and NFL officials announced the operation and seizure totals at a press conference in New Orleans as a tie-in to the Super Bowl, which will be played there on Sunday.

The initiative, dubbed “Operation Red Zone,” began on Sept. 1 and targeted a wide range of venues across the country for counterfeit NFL and Super Bowl merchandise, including international shipments, warehouses, stores, online vendors, street vendors and flea markets.

“The Super Bowl is one of the nation’s most exciting events,” said John Morton, director of Immigration & Customs Enforcement. “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. The sale of counterfeit jerseys and other sports items undermines the legitimate economy, takes jobs away from Americans and fuels crime overseas. No good comes of counterfeiting American products — whether NFL jerseys, air bags or pharmaceuticals — and we must go after the criminals behind it.”

Among the bogus goods seized were jerseys, ball caps, T-shirts and jackets. Officials from ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations, U.S. Customs & Border Protection, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and local and state police departments around the country participated in the nationwide sweep, in conjunction with the NFL and other major sports leagues.

The HSI-led Intellectual Property Rights Center spearheaded the effort, in coordination with the Department of Justice’s Computer Crime & Intellectual Property Section and five U.S. Attorneys’ offices, including the Districts of Maryland, New Jersey, Colorado, Utah and the Eastern District of Louisiana.

Officials, who seized more than 160,000 items of fake Super Bowl related memorabilia along with other counterfeit merchandise, said they will continue the investigation through Wednesday due to increased counterfeiting activity around the world.

“We’re delighted to once again partner with federal law enforcement to help combat the influx of counterfeit merchandise,” said Anastasia Danias, NFL vice president for legal affairs. “We are grateful for their tireless efforts to keep counterfeiters from illegally profiting off of the fans’ enthusiasm for their team and the Super Bowl, and from hurting the local businesses that play by the rules.”

One of the largest busts occurred in September when ICE officials executed a search warrant at a home in Warwick, R.I., and seized 226 boxes of counterfeit goods containing 4,016 sports jerseys with a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $724,340, in addition to $477,000 worth of additional fake goods and $130,000 in U.S. currency and checks. The owner of the home was arrested and is facing federal charges of trafficking in counterfeit goods and smuggling.

In a separate bust, ICE agents in Indianapolis seized 1,319 counterfeit sports caps worth $30,000 and $7,600 worth of additional counterfeit goods at the Indiana State Fairgrounds and arrested a vendor there. Another 21 people were arrested across the country.

Authorities said the seizure of Web sites is a part of a long-term enforcement initiative targeting counterfeiting and piracy on the Internet, dubbed “Operation in Our Sites.” Visitors to the Web sites will find a seizure banner and a notice warning that willful copyright infringement is a federal crime.

Since the launch of the operation, the IPR Center has seized 2,061 domain names and, in conjunction with PayPal, identified and seized more than $66,000 in assets in bank accounts used for money transfers to the illegal operations.

“PayPal and eBay Inc. pride ourselves in going above and beyond in the fight against the illegal online trafficking of counterfeit goods by partnering with law enforcement and rights owners globally, and as part of providing safe and trusted payments and commerce platforms,” said Tod Cohen, eBay’s vice president and deputy general counsel of government relations.