Feds go after counterfeiters at Super Bowl

Image: Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Randal Hill
"We're hitting every store that we possibly can. We will continue and we won't stop," said Randal Hill, an agent whose NFL career included stops with the Saints, Dolphins and Cardinals.Alan Diaz / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Randal Hill spent seven years in the NFL catching passes and scoring touchdowns. Now he and other federal agents are working to prevent criminals from ripping off fans and the league at the Super Bowl.

Hill is part of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement team that is scouring South Florida for counterfeit merchandise and arresting the people who peddle it.

"We're hitting every store that we possibly can. We will continue and we won't stop," said Hill, a speedy wide receiver on the University of Miami's 1989 national championship team. His NFL career included stops with the Saints, Dolphins and Cardinals.

"It would be sad to see a young kid who's really into the game, who's really into professional sports, wearing something that is not authentic and thinking he has the real thing."

Sales of knockoff NFL hats, T-shirts and jerseys are a big illegal business all year long. But as fans converge each year on the Super Bowl, the counterfeiters follow with millions of dollars worth of fake stuff, said John Morton, assistant Homeland Security secretary for ICE.

So far, ICE agents working "Operation Faux Bowl" in South Florida have seized more than 1,600 counterfeit items worth about $155,000, Morton said Thursday. By the time the week is over, he expects the totals to be similar to 2009, when the game was in Tampa. Then, agents confiscated 15,653 items worth over $1.8 million.

Counterfeiters charged with a federal crime can face up to five years in prison and fines.

"It's clearly an organized crime problem. This is not a mom-and-pop kind of crime," Morton said. "There are a number of major sporting events that you know well in advance are going to draw an organized crime element. We put on a sustained surge effort to combat the trouble we know is going to show up."

The 40-year-old Hill is part of that surge. As a player, Hill said he didn't think too much about the ramifications of counterfeit merchandise — how it feeds criminal enterprises, rips off fans, players and the league itself, and removes money from the U.S. economy. Often the fake stuff comes from China or India.

Hill recently spoke with friends Chad Ochocinco, Joey Porter and Ray Lewis about how current NFL players could bring greater public attention to the problem.

"I think it's important to get the word out. It's all about the fans," Hill said. "If the fans want to be buying good merchandise, we don't want to see them out there with counterfeit goods on their backs."

At ICE's office in Miami, agents displayed stacks of counterfeit apparel already seized: Saints quarterback Drew Brees' No. 9 jersey, caps bearing the Super Bowl logo and the Saints and Colts emblems, even throwback jerseys of older stars such as Dan Marino and Terry Bradshaw.

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said fans should be careful throughout the year to check the quality of the goods they're buying. The NFL uses special holograms and other difficult-to-copy techniques on its officially licensed merchandise and doesn't sell items with mistakes, such as a green Colts shirt recently being peddled in Miami or a jersey with the player's name misspelled.

"These people aren't graphic artists, they're con artists," McCarthy said. "First and foremost, it's buyer beware. Be sensible."

So far, Morton said ICE agents haven't seen a major problem with phony Super Bowl tickets. Anastasia Danias, the NFL's vice president for legal affairs, said the league uses a series of security devices on the tickets, such as two-way holograms and a special ink that rubs off and then almost magically reappears.

"And that's only what we can tell you about," Danias said.

Hill, who first began planning for a federal law enforcement career in the mid-1990s, has also been involved in financial and national security investigations at Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He was part of a task force that rounded up South Florida members of the violent MS-13 gang and compares the sometimes long hours and stress of his job to his NFL days.

"The fans see a lot of the glitz and glamour, but people don't understand there's a lot of stress with being a professional football player," he said, mentioning as examples the agony of a dropped pass at a key moment or the long hours watching film. "In law enforcement, you have to protect your friends and your colleagues as well."

Another parallel occurred to him: "I try to be high speed, low drag. I've got to be bulletproof and invisible."