Investigating Sports Memorabilia Fraud


In the 1990s the FBI uncovered two large forgery and fraudulent autograph and memorabilia enterprises in both Chicago and San Diego.  Together, these organizations threatened the future of the sports memorabilia industry by saturating the market with forged signatures of various players including Sammy Sosa, Muhammad Ali, Jerry Rice and Magic Johnson; and deceased athletes Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Wilt Chamberlain and Cy Young. 


The Chicago branch of the FBI first investigated a group of individuals said to be forging autographs and distributing fraudulent memorabilia of some of Chicago’s top professional athletes, including Michael Jordan.  This operation, known as “Foul Ball,” led to the arrest of fourteen individuals in five states.  Additionally, this operation was instrumental in helping the FBI in San Diego succeed in bringing down one of the largest sports memorabilia forgery businesses ever, Operation Bullpen.


Operation Bullpen involved an undercover investigation conducted by the San Diego Division of the FBI.  Agents set up a fake trading company called Nihon in order to secretly gather information about the individuals involved in the forgery market.  Baseball players Tony Gwynn and Mark McGwire were instrumental in assisting the FBI by verifying forgeries of their own signatures.  Operation Bullpen resulted in the arrest of around twenty individuals.  Some of the people arrested were actual forgers, while others were responsible for the sale, distribution and fraudulent authentication of the items.  The FBI confiscated over 2,000 baseballs, 500 bats, 600 jerseys and several other items including hats, helmets, pucks and photos. 


It is believed that these organizations together sold over $100 million dollars worth of phony memorabilia in over 15 states.   Initially, the forged items were sold strictly on the black market, but eventually they infiltrated the legal market being sold at internet auction sites, shopping malls, home shopping networks and sports memorabilia shows. 


As a result of these two criminal operations, the sports and celebrity memorabilia industry has been forever changed.  Many of the fakes created by these two entities are still being sold on the market today. What is more, the practice of selling fake memorabilia did not end when these businesses were brought down.  New fakes are still being sold, and more people have been arrested for the sale of phony memorabilia since Operation Bullpen.  In one such case, a woman in Massachusetts was arrested for forging signatures of various New England Patriots players.  Others like her were arrested in other cities including Washington, Georgia and Indiana.


After the arrests of Operation Bullpen, the San Diego office of the FBI issued a statement:  “Perhaps the most important objective of this investigation is to increase public awareness regarding the substantial memorabilia fraud problem which may account for upwards of $500,000,000 in losses annually. While there are legitimate and reputable companies selling authentic memorabilia, the industry has been plagued with high-quality forgeries making it difficult for legitimate companies to compete It also defrauds thousands of unsuspecting consumers each year.”


Legitimate sports memorabilia dealers have been adversely affected by these fraudulent sellers and forgers.  Reputable and honest dealers are fighting back, however, by coming up with different ways to deter forgers while building assurance in consumers concerning the sports memorabilia market.  One such change is added steps to the authentication process. 


Certificates of authenticity, or COAs, still remain important in validating the genuineness of memorabilia.  Nonetheless, forgers have become very savvy over the years, and many of them will provide fraudulent COAs, as was the case in San Diego.  The forgers used fake third-party authenticators in most cases, but in a few situations they sought out inexperienced authenticators who unknowingly approved the fraudulent merchandise. 


To make the authentication process more difficult, many dealers are adding a numbered, tamper-proof holographic seal to their products.  This hologram may be one used by the particular athlete who signed it or one issued by the dealer.  Reputable dealers may also provide notarized letters from athletes, or athlete certificates of authenticity to their products to further assure consumers that their memorabilia is genuine.  Additionally, many large dealers maintain online databases of everything they’ve sold, which are accessible to people who’ve purchased items they’ve registered. 


Lastly, some dealers offer 100 percent lifetime guarantees of authenticity.   This means that if at anytime the purchaser finds the item to be fraudulent, the dealer will give a full refund, which goes a long way to restoring the honesty of the sports memorabilia industry.



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©2019, SportsMem, Inc. All rights reserved.