On Thursday, multiple federal law enforcement agencies announced that they have seized infringing knock off NFL® merchandise and Super Bowl® tickets valued at more than $20 million. Agents from both the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security, in cooperation with NFL® officials, conducted perhaps the largest Super Bowl® counterfeiting sting ever in what has become an annual tradition.
In addition to phony Super Bowl® tickets offered to unwitting fans, the seizures included a myriad of counterfeit apparel and other merchandise, including jerseys, hats, jackets, T-shirts, jackets and other souvenirs. According to unofficial reports, the vast majority of counterfeit goods were manufactured in China and imported by U.S. based distributors, including suspected members of organized crime.
As previously reported on the Gibbons IP Law Alert, Counterfeit NFL® merchandise and tickets is always a big money illegal enterprise, but the activities intensify each year as the Super Bowl® looms. Counterfeits not only harm the NFL® brands, but the unsuspecting consumers who often pay full price for inferior merchandise or worthless tickets to the game. In addition, counterfeit merchandise diminishes state tax revenue, particularly in the host state and home states of the two championship teams. Although the announced seizures are big news, agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have announced that their efforts are far from over as they will be conducting investigations throughout the weeks to come, particularly in New Jersey where a Newark-based task force named “Operation Team Player” has a large team of undercover agents conducting stings.
Although many brand owners find it challenging to refer trademark counterfeiting matters for criminal investigation, the NFL® has had great success working with various law enforcement agencies to combat counterfeiters. While civil lawsuits remain a necessity in any comprehensive anti-counterfeiting strategy, brand owners would be wise to borrow a page from the NFL® playbook in this instance, working to establish relationships with the various federal, state and local law enforcement agencies tasked at enforcing criminal counterfeiting statutes.
Gibbons will continue to monitor and report on noteworthy cases and legislation relating to brand protection and anti-counterfeiting.