Copycats, be warned: Through early next week, police and NFL officials will be able to seize any counterfeit tickets or merchandise they see, no questions asked.
A Fulton County judge this week granted a temporary restraining order against unknown counterfeiters, saying that in the days leading up to the game thru Monday at noon, officers or NFL brand watchdogs can take all counterfeit materials they see, and anything that was used to make them.
“Is it aggressive? Yes,” Joseph Wargo, an intellectual property attorney at the firm Wargo & French, said of the court order. “This isn’t the NFL’s first rodeo.”
The restraining order comes as the NFL and law enforcement officials are ramping up efforts this week to deter the sale of counterfeited merchandise and fake tickets.
On Thursday, they held a press conference to announce that since last year’s Super Bowl, authorities have seized more than 285,000 counterfeit NFL items worth more than $24 million.
“Consumers are hurt by receiving poor quality products,” said Robert Perez, the deputy commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Additionally, the U.S. Attorney’s office on Thursday announced the indictments of 13 people related to various illegal ticket schemes, including two men from metro Atlanta who were charged with producing and selling bogus tickets for the last two Super Bowls.
Also, authorities in Gwinnett County are looking for a businessman, Ketan Shah, who is accused of selling nonexistent tickets to several people, including his mother. Channel 2 Action News reported the alleged scam totals nearly $1 million. Shah has skipped town, and his wife said she hasn’t seen him since Jan, 3.
Alan Tartt said he first reached out to Shah in November. He and his friends deposited $20,000 directly into Shah’s bank account, but received nothing in return.
“Everything seemed legit,” he told Channel 2.
As authorities continue to track down false dealers, they are aided by the restraining order granted Monday in Fulton Superior Court. It grew out of an NFL lawsuit filed as a preemptive strike to get ahead of issues that will rise in the days leading up to the game.
The effort to seize and impound questionable merchandise and tickets before they’ve been explicitly identified as counterfeit dates back to the 1983 Super Bowl. Each year since, the host city has granted the NFL broad authority to seize items suspected of being fake. The privilege was granted in Atlanta’s two previous Super Bowls.
Dolores DiBella, the NFL’s vice president of legal affairs, said there will be about a dozen people in Atlanta from the NFL whose job is to protect the brand, in addition to officers who look for counterfeit goods. Between the 2017 Houston Super Bowl and last year’s, in Minneapolis, counterfeit merchandise worth $15.69 million was seized, she said. She did not know how much of that activity was tied to the Super Bowl.
“We found that it’s a useful tool for aiding in the enforcement work,” DiBella said of the order.
Wargo said it’s rare that a company or event would get that kind of relief before counterfeiters are even identified. But the NFL has a long history around the Super Bowl, he said, and he suspects there was no problem meeting the high bar to receive the order. NASCAR has received similar injunctions on counterfeit goods before its seasons.
“I’m fairly confident they were able to provide evidence of what happened in the past to show the likelihood that it would happen in the future,” Wargo said. “Counterfeit activity routinely happens at the Super Bowl.”
In its request for the restraining order, also filed Monday, the NFL, the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams said football trademarks are “extremely valuable commercial assets and embody goodwill of incalculable value.”
When people purchase counterfeit merchandise or tickets, the filing said, they are deceived into thinking they’re buying genuine goods, when in reality “they are buying poor quality, unlicensed counterfeited goods.”
That’s bad for the people making the purchase, the filing contends, and bad for the NFL. Merchandise is “substandard” and tickets are “unredeemable.”
“When the merchandise prematurely breaks, tears, shrinks, or fades and when the tickets fail to grant entry into the Super Bowl game, consumers lose the value of their hard-earned money and question the goodwill” of the NFL and the teams, the filing said.
Why not go after the counterfeiters ahead of time? DiBella said that it’s nearly impossible.
“It’s often done by itinerant peddlers selling out of a duffel bag or a tent,” she said. “You come back the next day, and the peddler has already moved on.”
The filing said such sellers use “fictitious names, business addresses, and sham forms of business organizations” and quickly “disappear without a trace,” selling their products for cash.
If notified ahead of time, the court’s order said, those who are counterfeiting are likely to flee with their merchandise or destroy it.
Jonathan Sparks, an intellectual property attorney, said if the NFL waited until after the Super Bowl to go after counterfeiters, it would be far more difficult to collect on that infringement.
“Nobody cares about the Super Bowl after Feb. 3,” he said. “This is a unique situation.”
The range of what’s protected is broad, and includes the NFL and National Football League; phrases like Super Bowl and Super Sunday; designs for the Vince Lombardi trophy and the teams’ logos; and team-specific slogans, like the Rams’ Mob Squad and Defend Our Turf, or the Patriots’ Do Your Job, No Days Off, Unequivocally the Sweetest and Bellestrator.
Old logos and throwback emblems don’t get a reprieve, either.
If anything is taken, a receipt will be issued so the alleged counterfeiter can later argue to have their merchandise returned. The NFL and the teams also have to post a $30,000 bond to cover the possibility that they seize something that is for sale legally.
The order emphasizes getting counterfeit goods isn’t a reason for harm: nothing in it “authorizes the use of force against or the seizure or detention of any person solely on the basis of possessing or trafficking in Counterfeit Merchandise and/or Counterfeit Tickets,” it said.
Arrests have come for some already, including in metro Atlanta. The 13 indictments announced Thursday included Lithonia resident Eugene Smith, 45, and Riverdale resident Eric Ferguson, 50, who allegedly conspired to sell tickets to sporting events, including the past two Super Bowls.
Those tickets were distributed to a network of people who would advertise and sell the tickets to unsuspecting fans, a statement about the indictments said.
Smith allegedly purchased real tickets to events and gave them to Ferguson to duplicate. They face a series of charges related to wire fraud and trafficking counterfeit goods. Smith has pleaded guilty to all counts, and is waiting to be sentenced. Ferguson has pleaded not guilty, and is awaiting trial. It is scheduled to start Feb. 11.
Another person indicted in a similar case, Damon Daniels, was arrested Tuesday in Duluth, U.S. Attorney William McSwain said. McSwain said that police pulled over a car and found printing equipment, card stock and Daniels, 48. Daniels was planning to print Super Bowl tickets, McSwain said.
The New York resident faces a series of charges related to counterfeiting, but McSwain said he does not expect Daniels’ to be the last arrest this week related to the Super Bowl.
“It’s ongoing,” McSwain said of the investigation. “We’re not done by a long shot.”
Staff writer J.D. Capelouto contributed to this story.
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