Fake Super Bowl merchandise seized in nationwide crackdown

Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents teamed up with police to seize counterfeit NFL merchandise at an unidentified location.

A few days before the Super Bowl, a massive crackdown on fake NFL merchandise was announced.

It happens every year.

In this crackdown - called Operation Team Player - knockoff souvenir football jerseys, caps and other merchandise worth more than $21.6 million were seized, dozens of illegal websites selling the stuff were shut down and 50 arrests were made, authorities said Thursday.

The results of the operation were announced at a news conference in Manhattan, where the counterfeit merchandise was being hawked in Times Square at cut-rate prices. NFL and law-enforcement officials displayed fake Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson jerseys - complete with knockoff Adidas labeling - Broncos and Seahawks hats, Super Bowl T-shirts and other goods made to look like official NFL gear.

Authorities said most of the knockoffs were made in China. They said once the makers learned the Broncos and Seahawks made the Super Bowl, they rushed to make the goods with the teams' logos. Then the goods were smuggled into the United States, often using overnight shipping.

Team Player began in June and targeted international shipments of counterfeit merchandise as it entered the United States, according to an announcement from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Authorities identified warehouses, stores, flea markets, online vendors and street vendors selling counterfeit game-related sportswear and tickets throughout the country.

The U.S. Attorney's office in South Carolina and agents with the Charleston office of Homeland Security Investigations were part of the operation. They and agents in Denver and New Orleans identified and seized 163 websites during the operation, officials said.

Those who visit the sites will notice a banner explaining that the domain names have been seized by federal authorities and that copyright infringement is a federal crime.

Beth Drake, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, described the investigation as a sophisticated, collaborative operation. She said local investigators made 27 undercover purchases of counterfeit goods from the targeted websites.

Charleston agents and attorneys focused on shutting down fake websites, according to Eric Klumb, assistant U.S. Attorney in the Charleston office.

Homeland Security agents would buy goods and determine they were counterfeit. The Attorney General's Office would track down and close the websites, he said.

Klumb said he did not expect anybody in Charleston to be arrested in connection with the websites, because they generally are registered in other countries. It's possible the affidavits could be unsealed to become public record Friday, he said.

So far, investigators have seized more than 202,000 Super Bowl-related items that, if legitimate, would have been worth more than $21.6 million. Authorities called the dollar amount a record for similar enforcement operations before other Super Bowls, including one last year that netted about $17 million in seizures.

Law-enforcement officers have made 50 arrests across the nation so far - three at the federal level and 47 at the state and local level. The operation will continue through Feb. 7, authorities said.

"Our agents are committed to combatting the criminal enterprises selling counterfeit products which undermine our economy, and take jobs away from Americans," U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Acting Director John Sandweg said in a news release. "No good comes from counterfeiting American products regardless of whether they are jerseys, airbags or pharmaceuticals."

The Associated Press, Dave Munday and Glenn Smith contributed to this report.