As New Orleans gears up for Sunday's Super Bowl, the city has become flooded with fans who are buying all the souvenirs they can. NBC's Jeff Rossen joins a team of federal investigators on the hunt for NFL counterfeits, which can be used to generate money for major crimes.
It's a multimillion-dollar criminal enterprise now in full force at the Super Bowl.
New Orleans is flooded with fans buying up anything they can, from Super Bowl hats to jerseys. But some of it is fake.
"So what?" you may say; "I'm still getting a shirt." But officials say some of the money from fake Super Bowl merchandise is funding major crimes. We went out with a team of federal investigators from the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement on the hunt for NFL counterfeits, hitting store after store, finding fake after fake after fake: merchandise that looks so real, even the experts have to look twice.
"Why should the average person at home care about this?" we asked John Schmidt, a field supervisor for the Department of Homeland Security.
"The proceeds from the sale of these items support criminal enterprises like gangs, drug organizations, underground networks," Schmidt told us.
And investigators say the criminals are getting better at fooling you. We found hats and jerseys with the NFL logo all over them -- even the official-looking NFL hologram.
That was fake, too. "It's just a shiny piece of paper," Schmidt explained.
Most of the counterfeit merchandise is shipped in from China. Officials try to stop it at the ports, but they can't keep up. At one store, officials seized three dozen counterfeit jerseys. We had some questions for the store manager.
"Do you feel bad about selling counterfeit goods?" we asked.
"Of course, but this is the first time I know those jerseys are counterfeit," the manager said.
So why was he selling them way under market price? "The price is too low," said Trey Lund, assistant special agent in charge for Homeland Security. "You know, they’re selling these for $49.99. The official Nike jerseys, the real ones, run right around $250."
We called the store owner. He never got back to us.
At another store, investigators confiscated more jerseys and hats. The owner told us he had no idea they were fakes.
"Where did you get these hats?" we asked the owner.
"Just a guy come around and sell them."
"Does that sound like legitimate NFL… a guy coming around and selling them?"
"That's correct," the owner said. "But I don't know."
But investigators said the next store we visited knew. The owner tried to pull a fast one, denying he had any jerseys. But when they searched behind the counter, it was a different story.
"What does that tell you?" we asked.
"That he knows it's illegal and he knows that it's wrong," the investigator said.
The owner said he's sorry and these stores all got warnings. But in some cases, prosecutors file criminal charges. "If they're perpetuating this sort of criminal activity, we're not going to give up until we find them," said Ray Parmer, special agent in charge, Homeland Security.
This season alone, the NFL has seized more than $13 million in fake merchandise. And it's not just stores. On Thursday the federal government will announce that they're shutting down more than 300 websites that were selling counterfeit NFL clothing.
So how do you protect yourself? These criminals are smart, but they can't seem to get the stitching down. The stitching in real NFL jerseys is flawless. When you buy a jersey, turn it inside out. If the stitching is sloppy, it likely may be a fake.
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