At Super Bowl LII, CBP Battles Fake Merchandise
It’s approaching Super Bowl Sunday, and even though your team isn’t in the big game, you want to show up to your party in their colors. But as you open the package holding the prized jersey, something is amiss. “Favor” is not the Hall of Fame quarterback who once played on the frozen tundra of Green Bay – it should’ve been Favre on the back of your jersey. You’ve been had by a counterfeiter. Customers need to pay close attention to hot ticket items they find online if the prices seem too good to be true. While catching a fake with an obvious misspelling is easy, import specialists with U.S. Customs Border and Protection look at far more details to determine what’s the real deal.
“See, look at the stitching here,” said Helene Warren-Cutler, a senior import specialist with more than 30 years’ experience sent from Philadelphia as part of CBP’s Apparel, Footwear and Textile Center of Excellence and Expertise. Working at an express consignment center near the Minneapolis, Minnesota airport, she’s looking at a knock-off of a Philadelphia Eagles jersey, and the facility is just a stone’s throw from the site of this year’s Super Bowl. “It’s all uneven, and you can see the leftover paper between the spaces on the backside of the lettering.”
She also noticed a shirt collar label that’s not even close to what is on officially licensed National Football League merchandise. Even the holographic NFL label on the paper tag doesn’t look quite right. After further inspection, that even turns out to be a fake, as the holographic image doesn’t reflect quite right under a scanner. This jersey has hit the trifecta of telltale signs: wrong stitching, wrong label, and wrong hologram. “Those are the big things I look at,” said Warren-Cutler.
During the past year since the last Super Bowl, CBP has worked with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement-led Operation Team Player, a crackdown on the illegal importation of counterfeit sports apparel and merchandise. During a news conference just days before the big game in Minneapolis, officials announced that in the past year of the operation there were more than 170,000 counterfeit sports-related items worth an estimated $15.69 million, and joint investigative efforts led to 65 arrests with 24 convictions. In addition, CBP has launched a public awareness campaign in airports around the country, displaying ads in passenger terminals with messages to warn travelers about the dangers of purchasing counterfeit goods.
“Disrupting the sale of counterfeit merchandise and counterfeit tickets helps ensure an authentic gameday experience for all fans,” said NFL Vice President of Legal Affairs, Dolores DiBella. “The NFL remains committed to consumer protection efforts year-round, and this collaboration with law enforcement is essential for every organization engaged in the fight against counterfeiting.”
Long before any of the merchandise hits the vendors’ tables in Minneapolis – and even before it arrived at the express shipper in the Twin Cities – CBP has people checking on its authenticity when it first arrives in the U.S. Bob Redes, the acting assistant port director for trade operations at JFK Airport in New York City, said the first clue that something is fake could be where it’s coming from and where it’s going. It’s what helped tip off Warren-Cutler to check the package in the first place.
“The number one way we target and look for counterfeit goods is looking at the country of origin – China, Hong Kong,” he said. If a large quantity of items, such as jerseys – the top counterfeit item among NFL merchandise – are going to a private residence, then that’s another sign. “If it’s a lot going to an apartment or house, we’ll hold something like that to see what it is.”
Another clue is its value.
“People might be paying five to ten dollars apiece for a counterfeit NFL championship ring,” said Philip Spataro, chief CBP officer at the Miami International Mail Facility. “The real rings have diamonds or rubies and gold, so you’re not going to see a real one that cheap.”
Spataro added some legitimate merchandise only comes into specific ports. So if, for example, a Super Bowl hat comes through his facility and it’s supposed to come through only at the Port of New Orleans, that’s another sign it’s probably a fake.
Redes said interrupting the flow of phony goods also interrupts the flow of cash for criminal and even possibly terrorist operations. He said his office at JFK takes probably $40 million worth of counterfeit merchandise off the streets each year. “There’s a lot of money that can be made in counterfeiting. We’re on the frontline of protecting intellectual property rights.” Across the country, CBP made more than 34,000 seizures of counterfeit goods last year, worth nearly $1.4 billion.
Back in Minneapolis, Warren-Cutler – part of a handful of import specialists sent to Minnesota specifically to look for counterfeit Super Bowl merchandise – continues to go through shipments coming through the express carrier facility, finding more than just sports gear and apparel that violate intellectual property rights. Fake Gucci bags, knock-off name-brand computer parts and even suspected counterfeit Bitcoins pass by her gaze during the early morning session before drivers take the legitimate items to their rightful owners. In many instances, these counterfeit goods may be fake but can also have very real health consequences to consumers. In addition, she’s been going through malls and shopping areas, looking for other counterfeit merchandise. She’s found plenty that’s referred to Homeland Security Investigations for possible seizure and criminal prosecutions. It’s a task she expects will only get bigger in the days before and during the Super Bowl, as some unscrupulous sellers try to cash in on an unsuspecting public. But Warren-Cutler will continue to remain on the front lines as part of the CBP team protecting the public at the Super Bowl and throughout the country.
“The ultimate consumer needs to know where something is coming from and that it is a legitimate product,” said Warren-Cutler. “It’s up to us to make sure that happens.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection is the unified border agency within the Department of Homeland Security charged with the management, control and protection of our nation's borders at and between the official ports of entry. CBP is charged with keeping terrorists and terrorist weapons out of the country while enforcing hundreds of U.S. laws.