Last month Anine Colaire’s adult stepson, Cory, was searching for a gray Steven Hauschka jersey at the pro shops near their home in Olympia. Because the stores and the National Football League (NFL) website didn’t have one, Colaire suggested he do a little more Web browsing.
When he found the No. 4 jersey he wanted, Cory shelled out the $99. But the jersey never arrived.
“Talk about fraud,” Colaire, 53, said. “Take people’s credit cards, run it for a payment for $99 and then never send anything … I mean, what a scam.”
As the new Seattle Seahawks season picks up speed, fans are showing their enthusiasm with jerseys, beanies, flags — anything with the logo and the name of the team or a favorite player. But as Colaire found out, there’s no shortage of websites selling counterfeits, or just scamming the fans.
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Team names and logos are trademarked by the NFL and individual teams, and fakes are monitored by the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arm, but the counterfeit industry is nonetheless thriving.
Last season, ICE seized $37.8 million worth of fake Super Bowl 2014 merchandise and tickets — more than the previous six Super Bowl enforcement efforts combined.
Andrew Muñoz, spokesman for ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations, said the sharp increase was due to the Super Bowl’s being in New Jersey, with New York City just across the river — offering a large customer base and a higher likelihood of criminals attempting to cash in.
The tally included $200,000 worth of merchandise seized in the Seattle area between Jan. 20, after the Seahawks beat the San Francisco 49ers the day before to land a place in the Super Bowl, and the downtown victory parade on Feb. 5, Muñoz said.
During last year’s national enforcement effort, dubbed Operation Team Player, ICE, in coordination with the NFL, also seized more than 5,000 websites selling counterfeit merchandise.
“Customers who receive the merchandise they order are the lucky ones, even though they are often disappointed by the quality of the product they received,” Muñoz, said. “A lot of customers don’t get anything at all and by the time they realize they have been scammed, the criminal is long gone.”
ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations leads the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center, which is the government’s response to international trade laws and counterfeit and pirated goods being sold in the U.S.
Its mandate goes far beyond NFL gear, including everything from medication and vehicle air bags to children’s toys and software.
As technology becomes easier to use, people can more easily stay anonymous when setting up servers and registering website domains, making website counterfeiting attractive to criminals. Muñoz said domains are often operated overseas but are registered through U.S.-based companies.
The NFL also actively identifies and shuts down websites selling counterfeit merchandise with the help of brand-protection firms like MarkMonitor. Last year, a New York federal judge awarded the NFL a $273 million default judgment against operators of more than 1,000 websites selling counterfeit merchandise.
Many counterfeit sites use domain names that incorporate the NFL or team names into the URL to attract customers, such as the sites mentioned in last summer’s lawsuit: nflshopclearance.com and newyorkgiantsproshop.com.
The website Colaire’s stepson used — Seahawksneed.com — did not respond to an email from The Seattle Times requesting comment on her complaint.
Fake sites also try to mimic the look and feel of official websites, use similar search language, pay for advertisements on other sites and use all the social-media outlets, making it harder than it used to be for shoppers to notice that a site is illegitimate, said Fred Felman, chief marketing officer MarkMonitor.
“A lot of scammers have gotten quite good at copying the visual aspects of websites. You may see a visually perfect, almost identical, copy of a retailer site,” he said. “Before, you could count on seeing all sorts of grammatical errors and weird tells.”
Seahawksneed.com looks very similar to the pro-shop websites. After her stepson finished his order for the jersey of Seahawks kicker Hauschka, Colaire was skeptical because he did not receive an order confirmation. When he tried to log back into the account he set up, the site wouldn’t let him. Another thing that raised her suspicions: The website didn’t have a phone number to call — only a Hotmail email address.
Colaire owns a company called NickerStickers, where she designs and sells animal decals and stickers. Over the past 10 years she’s learned how to track down website operators who are ripping off her copyrighted artwork.
“People copy my designs all the time,” she said. “It is a constant battle whenever you put artwork online.”
After looking up Seahawksneed.com, she quickly found out the website was owned by a Chinese company, but it was registered in California. She has reported that site, along with four others she found suspect, to Homeland Security.
As of Wednesday, all five sites were still operational.
Muñoz said it “may take months” to make undercover purchases to confirm that items are actually counterfeit, followed by getting a federal judge to issue a seizure warrant. It may be quicker for a brand’s owner to take independent action through a civil lawsuit, he said.
MarkMonitor’s Felmansaid one reason illegitimate sites are so popular is because people are always searching for deals. Often scammers will sell items at only a 40 or 60 percent discount — “using those prices to add an air of legitimacy to their scam” — because too much of a discount could tip people off, he said.
Officially licensed NFL Seahawks jerseys at NFLshop.com, for example, run between $100 and $150, but the most sought-after jerseys — Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch or 12th Fan — can be almost $300.
By contrast, Seahawks jerseys on a few unlicensed sites were priced between $80 and $150.
Fanatics.com, which operates official NFL merchandise websites, says licensed NFL jerseys should have a hologram sticker with the official NFL shield on it. The site also recommends reading the tags on the jerseys — no officially licensed NFL jerseys are made in China.
Muñoz and Felman both said that when fans use unofficial websites to buy merchandise, they need to be extra careful. Even if a customer is OK with a second-rate jersey, it is possible that their credit-card information could be sold, or the website could make occasional small charges.
“It is a known practice of these fraud rings to make micro charges to victims’ credit cards long after they first scammed them,” Muñoz said. “So it is important for consumers to pay attention to their credit-card statements.”