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$97.8 Million Worth Of Fake Sports Memorabilia Seized In Run-Up To Super Bowl

LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) — Thousands of counterfeit Super Bowl-related merchandise seized from vendors from all over Southern California is worth an estimated $97.8 million, federal authorities said Thursday.

Operation Team Player – an effort involving several federal agencies, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, and the NFL – has been cracking down all year on the illegal importation of counterfeit sports apparel and merchandise.

The joint task force has been scouring online marketplaces, local flea markets such as the Santa Fe Springs Swap Meet, and Santee Alley in Downtown L.A.'s Fashion District, looking for fake jerseys, hats, rings, T-shirts, jackets, tickets, souvenirs, and other sports-related memorabilia in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl.

More than 267,511 fake sports items, worth an estimated $97.8 million, have been seized during this year's Operation Team Player, officials said.

It's grown increasingly more difficult to spot the faux memorabilia, as Ryan Betsher and his family from Cincinnati told CBS reporters, "They do a pretty good job of making some fake stuff, maybe they screen printed themselves and it looks real to me. My kids can tell the difference though- they just know."

The value of this year's seizures have more than doubled compared to last year, when Operation Team Player collected $45 million worth of counterfeit sports gear. Federal authorities say the global pandemic pushed much of the counterfeit business online, forcing them to focus their efforts on commercial websites illegally selling and distributing fake goods online.

"Although the scale of global intellectual property theft and intellectual property rights violations have increased with the rapid growth of e-commerce platforms, law enforcement efforts have remained laser focused on disrupting supply chains to stop the flow of illicit goods into the United States," Steve Francis, acting executive associate director of Homeland Security Investigations, said in a statement.

Federal agents involved in the operation noted that the sale of counterfeit merchandise not only undercuts from legitimate businesses, but in many cases could be used to fund additional criminal enterprises, as detailed by Peter Flores with US Customs and Border Protection. "The profits could be used for human trafficking, trafficking of firearms, narcotics smuggling and promoting terrorist organizations. The list goes on and on," he said.

Officials also reminded the public that Sunday's Super Bowl is an all-digital ticketing event, and anyone looking to purchase a last-minute seat for the big game should avoid online marketplaces, instead relying on the trusted Ticketmaster, StubHub, Seat Geek and NFL Ticket Network.

Mike Buchwald with the NFL seconded that noting that, "screen shots of tickets, PDF print outs or anything else will not be valid."

Not just Rams and Bengals fans have converged in the City of Inglewood, as NFL fans from around the nation have made their way to the Southland, increasing the potential for scammers to sell merchandise for anyone's beloved team.

CBS reporters spoke with a couple of fans in the area on Thursday, who had just finished stocking up on Super Bowl gear from the team store, despite the elevated prices. Cherlin Hegler, who spent about $160 on a t-shirt and some sweatpants said, "it was worth it."

Law enforcement is urging the public to pay attention to what they're purchasing and remember where the money may be going if patrons are looking to save the extra buck.

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