PHOENIX — Federal agents prowling the streets here this week aren’t always searching for international terrorists. Sometimes, they’re hunting for Tom Bardy.
Around the valley that encompasses and surrounds Phoenix, agents have spent recent days swarming malls and markets in search of Gronkowsky jerseys and Partriots caps. Authorized to seize counterfeit goods on sight, agents uncovered about $100,000 worth of ersatz apparel here last weekend alone.
Gross misspellings of superstars’ names are one of the things that give away the dubious duds. But more sophisticated fakes are indistinguishable from $300 authentic jerseys hanging in the NFL shop set up in the Phoenix Convention Center. And it can be hard to persuade fans that saving several hundred dollars on a set of matching number 12 jerseys for the family is a bad idea.
Contraband team gear is almost as old as fanhood. Before Super Bowl XX, in 1986, fans flaunted trucker hats featuring the old New England Patriot doing something unspeakable to a [Chicago] bear.
The profane debasing of a mascot — and really anything that denigrates a team — is guaranteed to be contraband, said Daniel Modricker, a spokesman for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That “Yankees Suck” T-shirt you put on for special occasions? If it uses anything that looks like a team or league logo, it probably constitutes trademark infringement.
Although knockoffs are nothing new, the Internet has made selling fakes simpler in recent years. Official-looking websites sell gear of questionable quality to unsuspecting fans. And rather than trading in the cheap flea-market knockoffs that were once common, the products today offer only slight discounts over full retail price.
Wearing counterfeit clothes won’t get you in trouble with the law — customs agents won’t take the shirt off your back. But officials say counterfeiting is far from a victimless crime. Aside from violating trademarks, the fake items often skirt sales tax and keep money from legitimate retailers.
At a news conference this week, officials unveiled piles of knock-offs seized here in recent days: Earrings of unknown provenance; a dia de los muertos style skull with a Patriots logo on its side; several flasks bearing the logos of different teams.
Clothes are common, said Sarah Saldaña, head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but the other items can pose safety risks. Earrings and flasks made overseas on the cheap can include harmful metals. Such items are destroyed, while many of the seized clothes are shipped overseas to be given away in developing nations.
Those caught selling the goods usually face civil, not criminal charges. About 50 people were prosecuted criminally nationwide in a recent sweep.
Bogus tickets are more pernicious for those doing the purchasing.
Glendale police Chief Debora Black said some fans showed up at last week’s Pro Bowl here with counterfeit tickets they had bought from a scammer. The NFL’s version of an all-star game is widely derided and little-watched on television, but the event was sold out. Those with fakes were turned away. Though the value of watching the Pro Bowl is up for debate, the money spent on counterfeit tickets was very real.
Last Sunday’s experience suggests fake tickets will turn up for Sunday’s game, Black said. She and others urged those searching for last-minute seats to be wary. Real tickets have holograms on the back and a logo near the bottom that is cut all the way through each ticket. But some fakes are sophisticated, and some real tickets are stolen; those that have been reported stolen will not be accepted at the gate, either.
That’s a nightmare for fans who came from far away and paid thousands of dollars to see the Super Bowl.
“It is not a victimless crime,” said Saldaña, citing counterfeit cases that include dangerous baby cribs and questionable military supplies.
Some wonder why the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency spends so much time and money hunting down fake luxury items when the department is also tasked with reining in illegal immigration — a question Modricker said is the most common the agency receives.
About a week ago, an Arizona man who was free while awaiting deportation proceedings despite a burglary conviction and two harassment injunctions allegedly shot a convenience store clerk to death.
“We detain them very often, but very often we can’t,” said Jeh Johnson, secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security, who was asked about the case while visiting the Super Bowl site this week. Judges’ decisions, legal precedent, and the long delays before deportations all contribute to the decision to release an illegal immigrant , he said.
Special Agent in Charge Matt Allen, who is coordinating security for the Super Bowl, said keeping contraband out of the country is a central part of the agency’s mission.
“The majority of counterfeit goods are coming into the United States from elsewhere, primarily Asia,” Allen said, which makes the knock-offs an issue for Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees it.
Jerseys and merchandise are the tip of the artificial iceberg, Modricker said. Pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, electronics — even car tires and airbags — are routinely recovered by agents.
In addition to the obvious dangers posed by fake car parts, “That’s money not being paid in taxes and not being reinvested into roads and schools,” Modricker said, and the Super Bowl is a good chance to highlight the larger problem.
Nestor Ramos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.