Counterfeit Penguins merchandise a burgeoning business

Fake versions of team merchandise proliferate around playoff time, creating headaches for law enforcement


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If the Penguins turn their tide of losses tonight and continue in the playoffs, law enforcement officials will need to brace themselves for an influx of counterfeit sports memorabilia.

Experts say even fans might want to be wary of goods that, while often cheaper than the legitimate merchandise, often turn out to be poorly made and are likely to wear out long before the memories do.

No matter where the Stanley Cup finals end up being played, authorities expect counterfeiters to be busy. The National Hockey League has seized more than 10 million items since it began policing unauthorized replicas of its products in 1992.

Traditionally, counterfeiters target the biggest games of each sports season -- the Super Bowl in football, the World Series in baseball and the Stanley Cup in hockey -- to capitalize on fans' excitement. They can be found peddling their products in the parking lots of sports arenas or, increasingly, on seemingly authentic websites.

In recent years, counterfeiters have grown adept at mimicking the appearance of the more expensive paraphernalia they are seeking to replicate. Although fans may buy counterfeit products for the lower prices, they often don't realize the products may be poorly constructed and may be contributing to criminal enterprises.

"Obviously, the most frequent consideration that consumers have when buying a counterfeit is the price," said Travis Johnson, director of legislative affairs and policy at the International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition in Washington, D.C.

"When they're looking for a bargain, though, they don't always get what they're bargaining for."

While it's not uncommon for counterfeiters to scrimp on quality, occasionally officials even find counterfeit apparel with printed errors. At the 2009 NHL Winter Classic, law enforcement confiscated caps that were dated Jan. 1, 2008 -- the manufacturers had forgotten that the first day of January denoted the start of a new year.

During the same game, officials seized a batch of T-shirts that listed the roster of players in order, but the fakes had some problems. While the official version of the T-shirt may have included "Crosby, Sidney," the fake listed it as "Sidney, Crosby."

"The reason fans are purchasing these products is that they want to remember their team's historical playoff run," said Kelly Lynch, associate legal counsel for NHL Enterprises. "They don't want to bring home a T-shirt with the wrong roster in the back."

Ms. Lynch said counterfeiters rarely replicate the signature tags and labels that accompany authentic NHL products, such as a holographic hangtag that, when held up to the light, shifts from reading "NHL" to "LNH." She added that fans can avoid counterfeit products by ensuring they only shop at official team stores and websites.

The most common precaution taken against counterfeiters is focused on the area surrounding an arena, where vendors can invariably be found selling anywhere from a few T-shirts to a few thousand.

According to Detective Thomas Leheny of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, who handles counterfeit investigations, local teams often hire six to eight police officers to patrol arena parking lots on important game nights. Vendors found with unauthorized merchandise that replicates a trademarked team logo or player names can be fined and stripped of the license the city granted them to sell.

"Usually, vendors get a slap on the wrist for the first offense," Detective Leheny said, "but fines get higher for repeat offenders."

He said vendors have found ways to circumvent these regulations. Increasingly, they are offering apparel that reads "Pittsburgh Hockey," since only the Penguins' name is trademarked.

Counterfeit operations are also moving away from using roaming salesmen and are instead opening retail stores and expanding their Web presence.

In October 2012, the Pennsylvania State Police shut down a store in Breezewood, where they confiscated more than 25,000 pieces of counterfeit Penguins and Steelers paraphernalia.

The federal government also has carried out several large-scale seizures of websites selling counterfeit merchandise. An investigation known as Operation Red Zone shut down more than 300 websites selling fake NFL merchandise in late January.

Michael Dever, an attorney and co-chair of the intellectual property section at the Pittsburgh-based firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney PC, said counterfeiters buy Google ads related to their products to draw fans to their websites instead of official team online stores. Counterfeiters have also grown more adept at designing websites that look legitimate, further ensnaring customers.

Justin Cole, spokesman for the Intellectual Property Rights Center, the federal agency that handles counterfeit seizure operations, said activity is increasing because the industry is proving wildly profitable.

The profit margin on counterfeit products is so high, he said, that it surpasses what can be made selling drugs. As a result, he said, organized gangs are turning to counterfeiting as a new source of revenue.

"Gang members are not just selling drugs on the street corner anymore," Mr. Cole said. "They're selling fake purses and sunglasses."

According to data released in March 2012 by the U.S. Commerce Department, nearly $2 billion is lost each year from the American economy when customers buy counterfeit versions of products.

That figure includes fake pharmaceuticals, medical devices, designer products, as well as sports merchandise.

Mr. Cole thinks that if counterfeiters continue to find success, this figure will only rise.

"It's hard to think of counterfeiting as the crime of the century," Detective Leheny said. "But you still have to enforce it because, if you didn't, everyone would be doing it."

Correction

, posted June 7, 2013: A previous version of this story misstated the number of counterfeit items the National Hockey League has confiscated since 1992. It has confiscated 10 million items.

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Michelle Hackman: mhackman@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-1969.


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