According to Homeland Security officials, the amount of counterfeit merchandise entering the United States is increasing, and the problem is especially acute in the lead-up to an event like the Super Bowl. For instance, federal agents recently seized more than $6 million of counterfeited goods and shut down more than 300 illegal websites in an action dubbed "Operation Fake Sweep." The 42,000 confiscated items include jerseys, hats and jackets.
In addition to looking authentic, the phony gear was cleverly ticketed: "The prices are not ridiculously low," said John Morton, director of Customs and Immigration. "They are discounted just enough that a consumer might think they are the real thing."
The Super Bowl is "a huge target for counterfeiters since it's so exciting for fans to have a piece of memorabilia about an event they're so emotionally tied to and so enthusiastic about," says Frederick Felman, chief marketing officer at MarkMonitor, a firm that provides Internet brand protection services.
To give some idea of "how profound the counterfeiting issue is," Felman's firm ran a study looking at the suspected counterfeiting of five unnamed brands' merchandise. "We found 1,300 sites selling what we believe to be counterfeited goods," he says, "with 800,000 units sold annually. Many of them were linked to a Chinese registrant or registrar." According to the full report, "The e-commerce sites selling this suspicious apparel attract 56 million annual visits."
"Counterfeiters -- people making things that are easily reproducible, like jerseys other types of sportswear and sporting goods -- they look for any opportunity they can to promote their activity," Felman explains. "In the U.S., the Super Bowl is at the forefront now, everyone's being bombarded by messages about it. The scammer's bonanza is anytime there's anything that drives a lot of traffic. They can bury their message in this flow and draw a lot of eyeballs and profit from it."
To describe the experience of going online during Super Bowl season, Felman uses a fitting simile: "It's almost like going into this digital stadium and seeing scalpers selling fake tickets. Instead, they're hawking fake jerseys and all kinds of paraphernalia and memorabilia."
For consumers concerned to avoid fake Super Bowl jerseys and the like, Felman has the following advice: "Be extremely suspicious of prices that are too low to be true. If its price is that low, then it's likely a fake." You should also consider the digital storefront surrounding the merchandise: "Look carefully at the website itself. Is it constructed in a legitimate fashion? Does it look like the English is written well and it's been put together professionally?" And rather than following ads or promotions to find an online seller, go to a reputable retailer of branded items.
The cost of buying online from a fraudster can be greater than simply the embarrassment and anger of being duped. "Some people think, oh, maybe I get a $30 or a $49 sweatshirt, worst case it comes apart or is defective in some way," Felman explains. "But you don't know how this has been put together, what the composition of the dyes is, what risk you might be exposed to."
Even worse, a lot of the organizations selling these goods are part of larger criminal operations. "You may not be assured that your credit card is especially safe with them," either because their payment process lacks sufficient security measures or because "they intentionally adopt a strategy to abuse the responsibility you've given to them," Felman warns. "You have to be very careful with these sort of fly-by-nighters because the risk might not be just that you get a defective product; it could be that you lose your identity and find yourself having to dig out of a financial mess."