- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Three years ago, the FBI made a small dent in the teeming business of fake sports memorabilia through the much-publicized Operation Bullpen, seizing nearly $12million in assets from dealers around the country — including a baseball with a ridiculous fake signature of Mother Teresa.

Modern authentication techniques like detailed bar codes imprinted with invisible ink and heat-sealed computer chips provide collectors with more security. But fraud in the $2billion world of sports memorabilia and autographs remains as serious a problem as ever, according to nearly every major dealer and scores of collectors. And many of the current scams, they say, are happening on EBay, the popular Internet auction site.

With another NFL season under way and the holidays approaching to fuel purchases of collectibles, law enforcement authorities and above-board dealers are bracing for yet another wave of ripped-off, dissatisfied customers.

On a normal day, more than 16million items are available for bid on EBay. Two million new listings each day refresh that total. And much of that traffic is in some way related to sports memorabilia or autographs.

Despite a series of additional protections in place via EBay, including verified certificates of authenticity, third-party evaluations and insurance policies, the law of the land is still very much “buyer beware.”

“Many of your biggest stars, such as Tiger Woods, the forgeries in the marketplace are still 90 percent and more,” said Tim Fitzsimmons, the FBI agent who is leading Operation Bullpen.

James Spence, a Pennsylvania autograph authenticator who works with EBay, says 60 percent of all submissions for his online verification service are forgeries, many making a mockery of certificates of authenticity that also are forged.

And Emmitt Smith, the NFL’s all-time rushing leader, recently told the Arizona Republic that during a recent search on EBay, he found 19 of 20 auctions with Smith autographs to be fake.

“To some degree, this problem is always going to exist in some form,” Spence said. “That’s kind of depressing, but I think there are plenty of people who have fakes out there innocently, as well as those who are operating maliciously.”

EBay, to its credit, has aligned itself with several prominent memorabilia authenticators like Spence to help sellers and buyers verify what is truly real. Company staffers are in constant contact with player agents, law enforcement officials and league security officials, and prominent dealers trying to weed out fakes on the site. But even EBay officials concede that the forgery and fraud battle is far from won.

“When you have the kind of volume that we do, there are going to be problems,” said spokesman Kevin Pursglove. “We have a variety of strong tools in place to make the buying process as safe as possible. At the end of the day, though, the buyer still has to make the decision.”

The size of its auction directory and the speed and ease of its site and market dominance that collectively define EBay have made the site the beloved destination it is. The San Jose-based company was one of Wall Street’s hottest performers the last year.

But those same attributes have prompted a vigorous debate, both in and out of the courtroom, over what EBay’s responsibilities should be to buyers, not just sports collectors.

Several courts have ruled that EBay is not like a traditional auction house, such as Sotheby’s, that either takes ownership of an item or consigns it for a third party and handles the funds in the transaction. EBay, conversely, simply acts as a medium to link buyer and seller. All goods and money remain away from EBay ownership. Still, some collectors would like to see some type of pre-screening of memorabilia dealers to ensure that fakes do not reaching the Web site.

“That’s a possibility,” Spence said. “It would be a immense task operationally, given all the auctions out there, and really could cut down the traffic on the site. But it’s been talked about.”

In the meantime, pro athletes and their agents have become more involved than ever in helping stamp out EBay fraud.

Smith is working with a St. Louis-based company called WeTrak that implants a special computer chip in all authorized merchandise bearing the running back’s signature. The St. Louis Rams also use WeTrak.

Baseball stars Tony Gwynn and Mark McGwire assisted the FBI in Operation Bullpen. Sports agencies large and small have full-time staff seeking out Internet scams involving their clients’ names or likenesses.

“We’re reviewing this stuff seven days a week,” said Harlan Werner, chairman of Sports Placement Service, a Los Angeles-agency that represents numerous sports legends including John Riggins. “Having somebody like [Riggins] who doesn’t sign much does sort of open up a can worms when it comes to this. But we, EBay, and the FBI are all being as diligent as possible.”

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