Sports fans, watch out. There’s a different kind of foul ball in the air these days phony autographs of sports greats.
With signed sports memorabilia - bats, balls and photos - a multimillion-dollar business and with the World Series under way, the FBI is warning that a large share of the material on the market is fake. Buyers who haven’t seen the player actually sign his autograph are likely to be cheated, the FBI says.
“We have no way of knowing how much of the market is fake,” said David Rosenbloom, an assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted a Chicago forgery ring. “It’s a very big problem this industry will have to address.”
Avid fans spend about $300 million a year on sports memorabilia, said Mark Christenson, vice president of Upper Deck Authenticated, a Carlsbad, Calif., company that takes steps to ensure its autographs are the real McCoy.
He believes fakes account for some $50 million to $70 million a year of this industry, a con game that preys on Americans’ fanaticism about sports.
“You can’t put a price on this stuff for people who are into it,” Christenson said.
“They are passionate about the sport or the athlete. It gives them a chance to get closer to the athlete. If they find out the piece they bought is not legitimate, it goes way beyond the price of it. They feel very taken advantage of and violated.”
Experts say that among the most frequent forgeries are Michael Jordan, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams.
John Henry Williams knows the problem better than most. His dad is the legendary Boston Red Sox outfielder Ted Williams, who has very good penmanship.
“There is so much fake stuff out there that the public is just buying fake stuff rather than real stuff,” said the younger Williams, who has been on the forgery trail for several years. “I’ve bought items from all different places, and 90 percent of it is fake.”
The forgeries not only rob the fans but also cut into players’ income.
Buzz Hamon, director of the Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame in Hernando, Fla., said the Ted Williams balls he sells are ones that he gets directly from the superstar’s son. A real one sells for almost $300. Phonies go for about half that.
The younger Williams, who is president of Ted Williams Family Enterprises Ltd. in Hernando, keeps a data base of the hundreds of complaints he gets from people across the nation.
One of the calls came from Clarence Sargent, 61, who got Ted Williams to sign a ball in person about six years ago. When that ball faded, Sargent, a retired grocery clerk who lives in San Jose, Calif., ordered another one for $100 from a sports memorabilia company. But John Henry Williams is skeptical about the ball’s authenticity.
“It would break my heart if I found out I don’t have a legitimate ball right now,” Sargent said.
The problem has gotten big enough that the FBI has stepped in with Operation Foulball, the first federal crackdown on counterfeit sports memorabilia. In August, six men were sentenced in federal court in Chicago for ripping off millions from fans through a nationwide forgery ring. Their penalties ranged from eight months in home detention to 18-1/2 months in prison.
The goods included jerseys, bats, balls and photographs with the forged autographs of Chicago Bulls stars Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman and Chicago White Sox slugger Frank Thomas.
The ring worked this way: A team of forgers copied the athletes’ autographs, collecting $5 per signature for pictures and other flat items and $50 for a forged Michael Jordan autograph on a “pro-cut” Chicago Bulls jersey. The price went up for forging the whole team: typically $50 to $75.
The forgers sold their wares to another man, who sold them to distributors in on the scam, who then sold them to other dealers and consumers. By the time the goods reached sports fans, they were selling for at least three to five times what the crooked distributors had paid for them. A $50 basketball that forgers spent two minutes signing could go for $900.
To create an aura of legitimacy, the forgery ring sometimes provided bogus certificates from two different “handwriting analysts” who authenticated the signatures of various athletes. The schemers also concocted various cover stories to explain how they got the autographs. Either the seller knew someone very close to the athlete or had paid “hawkers” to get the signature outside an arena or hotel.
Rocky Landsverk, investigative reporter at Sports Collectors Digest, a magazine that caters to hobbyists, said the Chicago bust was an exception, and typically it’s hard to get the attention of law enforcement. “They have bigger fish to fry,” he said.
“What we tell people to do is keep the link between you and the athlete as short as possible,” Landsverk said. “It’s best if you see the item signed in front of you or if you know who the athlete signs for.”
Christenson, of Upper Deck, said his company was founded in 1992 to combat the forgeries. His firm has a five-step method of guaranteeing signatures, starting with having an employee watch the athletes sign the merchandise. Then the employee and the athlete sign an affidavit guaranteeing the autograph is real.
“Forgeries just aren’t that difficult to do,” Christenson said.
“Unfortunately, most people out there don’t know what these guys’ signatures look like. They are caught off guard, and they may buy something that is illegal.”