US agencies seize fake NFL gear, websites

313 websites are accused of selling counterfeit merchandise in advance of Sunday's Super Bowl

Three U.S. investigative agencies, working with state and local police departments across the country, have seized more than 300 websites and US$13.6 million worth of counterfeit National Football League sportswear and tickets from online and other sellers, the agencies announced.

Since Sept. 1, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and local police departments have seized 160,000 allegedly counterfeit items related to the NFL and the upcoming Super Bowl, the three organizations said in a press release.

During that time frame, special agents in ICE's Homeland Security Investigations have seized 313 websites accused of selling counterfeit merchandise, ICE said.

Authorities also targeted warehouses, stores, flea markets and street vendors. The law enforcement agencies plan to continue the so-called Operation Red Zone sweep through next Wednesday.

Visitors to these websites will find a seizure banner that notifies them that the domain name has been seized by federal authorities and tells them that willful copyright infringement is a federal crime. Since June 2010, HSI has seized 2,061 domain names of websites accused of copyright infringement.

HSI has worked with payment processor PayPal to identify bank accounts being used to facilitate the transfer of money to the allegedly illegal operations, ICE said. PayPal and HSI have identified and seized more than $66,000 in assets in these accounts.

ICE Director John Morton called the NFL's Super Bowl one of the nation's most exciting events. This year's Super Bowl between the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers is Sunday. "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," he said in a statement. "The sale of counterfeit jerseys and other sports items undermines the legitimate economy, takes jobs away from Americans and fuels crime overseas."

In addition to the website seizures, authorities have made several arrests.

In September, HSI executed a search warrant at a residence in Warwick, Rhode Island, and agents seized 226 boxes of counterfeit goods containing 4,016 sports jerseys worth about $724,000, as well as $477,000 worth of additional counterfeit goods and $130,000 in cash and checks. The owner of the home was arrested and is currently facing federal charges of trafficking in counterfeit goods and smuggling.

In November, HSI special agents responded to a call from Indiana State Fairgrounds Security that an individual at the Indianapolis International Fest was selling items suspected to be counterfeit. Upon arriving at the festival, the special agents were able to verify the goods to be counterfeit and seized 1,319 counterfeit sports ball caps worth about $30,000 and about $7,600 worth of additional counterfeit goods. HSI arrested the man for illegally trafficking in counterfeit merchandise.

Twenty-one other individuals were arrested in partnership with state and local law enforcement agencies on state charges at locations around the country.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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