By Kevin Nelson
Many of the collectors I have communicated with over the years have a simple question: “How do I stop a forger?”
Here is an e-mail I recently received from a collector who has been reading my recent series of articles on Operation Bullpen at Sports Collectors Digest and another website: “Here’s a question halfway out of left field,” he writes. “Do you know who in law enforcement to contact regarding current forgers? I recently identified an eBay seller who has been active for over a decade with thousands upon thousands of sales – and his products are excellent forgeries. He is fooling even well-informed collectors, and I do not know what to do.”
First, this is hardly a question out of left field. Since the publication of Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History, I have received a bunch of questions similar to this one. Honest collectors see fakes being peddled in cyberspace, and they want to stop it. But how? How do you put a forger and his confederates out of business and preferably even behind bars?
Here are 10 tips that can help you in this regard:
1. Contact law enforcement
Your local police or sheriff’s department, an FBI field office, the investigative arm of the Postal Service – these are all law enforcement agencies that could potentially investigate a forger and his ring of associates, including counterfeit memorabilia dealers and bogus authenticators. It may seem an obvious recommendation, but this is where you need to start.
2. Gather your facts
To be sure, in this era of declining government budgets and grave public safety threats such as terrorism, it is not going to be easy to interest the cops or the FBI with a fraudulent memorabilia problem. They’ve got a bunch of other things on their plate. You must be able to show the authorities that you have truly been ripped off. Mere accusations or suspicions won’t cut it. You’ve got to build your case and supply real evidence.
3. Find allies you can trust
Unless you have serious connections with higher-ups in law enforcement, your case in and of itself may not be enough to interest the law, even if you feel you’ve got a slam-dunk against the forgers. But if you know two or three other people who have also been ripped off in this way, and they have the evidence to back up their claims as well, that becomes a little harder for authorities to ignore. The greater the monetary damage, and the more victims there are, increases your chances of getting action.
4. Try eBay
If you think somebody has done you wrong on eBay, the site recommends that you first go down to your local police station and file a report with them. The report will ask you for details of your case – date and time of the offense, what was involved in the transaction, printed e-mails you may have exchanged with the seller, copies of his eBay web pages and other relevant information. If the police agree that what you have here is indeed a crime, they will then contact eBay, which will provide information and assist the authorities in their investigation.
5. Be persistent
Anyone who has ever dealt with eBay or law enforcement knows that the wheels of justice can grind slowly, very slowly. And sometimes, it is true, they can grind not at all. Should the police take your case, they will supply you with a “crime reference number.” Hang on to it because you will need to refer to it when you call the station for updates on the progress of your case, if any progress is being made at all.
6. Don’t get discouraged
As every collector knows, the number of times that forgers and counterfeiters are busted is miniscule compared to the number of forgeries that appear on any given day on eBay. That’s no reason to throw in the towel, though. High-profile busts of fraud merchants still do occur. Despite the constraints of time, money and resources, the feds still investigate the crooks and really do want to put them away. Support them when they do.
7. Let the athlete or his representatives know what’s going on
Muhammad Ali, Yogi Berra and many other retired professional athletes make money from signing autographs and selling memorabilia, and some of them depend on it quite heavily as a source of income. If you know about people who are making or selling forgeries of their autographs, tell the athlete and/or his representatives. They are going to be very interested in what you have to say and may reach out to the authorities as well.
8. Support the whistle blowers
There are many people out there – on YouTube, blogs, periodicals and websites such as this one, legitimate collectors and memorabilia firms, TV and radio, and newspaper reporters such as Michael O’Keeffe of the New York Daily News – who are genuinely disgusted with the forgers and counterfeiters who plague the collecting hobby. And they’re doing something about it by exposing them when they can. Tune into what they’re doing and perhaps even do a little whistle-blowing yourself.
9. Keep it in perspective
The FBI estimates that counterfeiters rip off the American public to the tune of $100 million a year. The fact is though, nobody, including the FBI, knows the real extent of the problem. It may be more or less than that. But don’t let the rip-offs spoil your enjoyment of the hobby. Few people in America know more about autograph forgeries than retired FBI agent John Ferreira, who acted as the undercover agent in Operation Bullpen and helped break up the ring. He has been a collector all his life and still loves it.
10. Contact me
Next month I begin a new column with SCD about the less savory aspects of the hobby – autograph forgery, dubious authentication practices, card doctoring and counterfeiting schemes, “game-used gear” that’s not really game-used, auctioneering scams – and what collectors can do about it. What actions can you take to protect yourselves and your investments? No one will ever be able to stop the crooks completely. But maybe we can shine a light on their schemes and possibly even make them run for cover. Check back soon; it promises to be interesting.
Kevin Nelson is the author of Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History. Contact him at that website or at or at KevinNelsonWriter.com.
Here are Nelson’s previous articles in his series on Operation Bullpen:
• Operation Bullpen, and Why Forgers Don’t Always Hit the Sweet Spot
• How To Trick People and Get Away With It: The Art and Craft of the Forger
• The ’98 Home Run Chase: A Perfect Storm for Counterfeiters
• Forging the Big Three: DiMaggio, Mantle, Williams
• What’s So Crazy About a Mother Teresa Baseball Anyhow?
• Forged ‘Cuts’: How Crooks Spun Pieces of Paper into Gold
• How Forgers Make Cash from Fake Celebrity Photos and Movie Posters