A Utah sports fan who ordered 42 jerseys last fall from an online shop thought he was getting a great deal on authentic National Football League and Major League Baseball shirts.
The shirts all turned out to be fakes and the site nflshopjerseys.com turned out to have no connection to the sport leagues, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said Thursday as it announced seizure of 70 websites trafficking illegal goods.
The action, dubbed Project Copycat, shut down websites selling baby carriers, language and fitness DVD sets, clothing, jewelry and luxury goods, in addition to sports jerseys.
"The imposter sites were simply a fraud from start to finish and served no purpose other than to defraud and dupe unwary shoppers," said John Morton, ICE director, in a statement.
The websites mimicked the look of legitimate retail sites so closely that "it would be difficult for even the most discerning consumer to tell the difference," the agency said.
And, in what the agency termed a "troubling new twist," many of the websites appeared to have Secure Sockets Layer certificates, which authenticate and encrypt private information and provide consumers with assurance their financial transactions are protected. Instead, consumers were duped that they were safely providing data to legitimate companies.
The Sandy man paid $18.50 per jersey about one-fourth the cost of an authentic jersey sold by a legitimate retailer plus an insurance charge and handling fee; in all, the transaction was just over $1,000.
The man's order was shipped from Shanghai, China, but was detained in Anchorage by customs agents who suspected the parcel might contain counterfeit merchandise.
The package was then sent to Salt Lake City, where an agent with ICE's Homeland Security Investigations contacted an intellectual property specialist with the NFL to verify the jerseys were fakes.
The intended recipient "insisted that he did not know they were counterfeit," a search warrant states. The package sent to the Utah man included 24 jerseys that were either not what he ordered or were the wrong size.
The agent visited the website, which advertised steep discounts on "authentic NFL jerseys" and displayed the league's logo. It also advertised jerseys for Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, and the National Basketball Association. He subsequently showed detailed photos of five jerseys to the Coalition to Advance the Protection of Sports logos, who confirmed the products were not authentic.
Homeland Security Investigations agents received search warrants from federal magistrate judges in four states, including Utah, allowing them to seize the domain names for the websites. In Utah, agents focused on the sports-related products, said Jonathan Lines, assistant special agent in charge for ICE in Utah. Utah agents received seizure warrants for 33 websites, including: nflshopjerseys.com; nflshopjerseys.net; nflshopjerseys.org; nflshopjerseys.us; nflshopsupply.com; nflshopjersey.com; and nflshop18.com. The sites were registered through and transactions handled by companies based in Beijing, China, or Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Visitors to the sites now see a seizure banner announcing the shutdown and citing the federal copyright infringement statute. The National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center coordinated the investigation. ICE and U.S. Attorney staff from Utah, Texas, Colorado and New Jersey participated in the action.
"These cases areâ¦ about ensuring that the goods Utahns spend their money on come from legitimate sources, and from companies that use safe materials and practice fair labor standards," said David B. Barlow, U.S. attorney for Utah, in a statement.
Lines said the Sandy man's transaction is part of a continuing investigation. Many people know they are buying fakes with the intention of reselling them to unknowing buyers, the agent said.
Lines also said the investigation is focused on trying to track down the people behind making the fake products.
"We don't want to just stop with a freeze on the websites," he said.
While uncovering the counterfeit scheme itself is important, so is shutting down the criminal enterprise behind it, he said.
"Even something as simple as buying a jersey could be supporting a criminal enterprise," Lines said. "It's not an innocent crime."
Counterfeiters divert revenue from legitimate businesses, take tax revenue from the government, and put consumers at risk with shoddy knock-offs, he said. Project Copycat found websites set up to sell fake Rosetta Stone language DVDs; BeachBody Fitness and P90X workout programs; and Ergo Baby Carriers, among other products.
"Counterfeiters are parasites on the economy," Lines said. "They are hurting everyone."
Since 2010, federal investigators have seized more than 800 domain names as part of an effort to protect consumers from counterfeit merchandise sold online. The operation initially focused on a website that sold pirated motion pictures and other audiovisual works, resulting in arrests and convictions of five individuals.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement urges online shoppers to protect themselves with these tips:
Ask yourself if the price is too good to be true.
Research the seller or website before you make a purchase; does the company have a brick-and-mortar store?
Educate yourself on the product and compare logos, hardware and stitching to confirm authenticity.
Always use a credit card to purchase online since your maximum out-of-pocket exposure is $50.
Save copies of all emails and other documents involved in the transaction; that paper trail will help if you discover an item is a counterfeit.