During the 1990s, the FBI identified a major problem threatening the entire
sports and celebrity memorabilia market. In the mid-1990's, the Chicago Division
of the FBI initiated a sports memorabilia fraud investigation targeting a
group of individuals who forged, fraudulently authenticated, and distributed
Chicago athletes' autographed memorabilia (including Michael Jordan). The
case resulted in the conviction of fourteen individuals in five states involved
with forging and distributing forged memorabilia. Information developed by
the Chicago FBI's "Foul Ball" investigation suggested that the
problem might be national in scope.
While it is impossible to definitively estimate the percentage of forged
memorabilia, most industry experts concede that over half of the most sought-after
athletes' and celebrities' autographed memorabilia is forged. Industry experts
estimate that the autographed memorabilia market in the United States is
approximately $1 billion per year. Cooperating subjects and memorabilia experts
estimate forged memorabilia comprises over $100 million of the market each
In 1997, the FBI in San Diego utilized information from Operation Foul Ball
and other sources to institute an undercover operation designed to infiltrate
the nationwide memorabilia fraud network. Together with the U. S. Attorney's
Office and the Internal Revenue Service, an undercover scenario was devised
in which an Undercover Agent would pose as a distributor of American memorabilia
in Asia. This scenario enabled the FBI to purchase evidence without causing
the sale of forged items to the public. It also made the criminals more likely
to openly discuss the counterfeit nature of the memorabilia, because it was
'going overseas' beyond the reach of U. S. law enforcement agencies. To support
this "cover story", the FBI established the Nihon Trading Company
in Oceanside, California. The goal of this undercover operation was to infiltrate
the forged memorabilia market and obtain recorded statements from those individuals
who were identified as forgers, authenticators, and distributors of fraudulent
The key evidence in this investigation were recorded statements which provided
evidence of the individuals' involvement in forging, fraudulently authenticating,
and/or distributing the materials. In Operation Bullpen, referred to as Phase
I, the San Diego Division of the FBI conducted well over 1,000 consensually
recorded audio and video tapes. During the consensually recorded conversations,
numerous co-conspirators made incriminating statements which illuminated
the nature and common practices involved with sports memorabilia fraud. For
example, one of the conspirators liked to joke to the Undercover Agent how
Mickey Mantle still has one arm out of the grave signing autographs. Other
conspirators were noting how Wilt Chamberlin was still available for signing
weeks after his death.
On April 11, 2000, Operation Bullpen Phase I culminated with the charging
of 26 individuals, who were all convicted. During the last five years, Phase
II expanded the investigation from predominantly Southern California to a
nationwide investigation. During this phase, a multitude of undercover scenarios
were instituted to focus on celebrity forgeries in addition to sports forgeries.
In this phase, over 2000 consensual recordings were made. Conspirators bragged
how their forgeries were better than those of other forgers that they knew.
One conspirator claimed if he went to trial, he would testify he actually
becomes Babe Ruth. He then joked he could also say he becomes Jackie Robinson
and then said he would turn Black (he was Caucasian) for the jury. A total
of 18 searches were conducted in 12 states, resulting in 36 additional convictions.
All searches were executed after September 11, 2001.
Additionally, although 13 forgery rings (compared to 5 in Phase I) were
dismantled, this was investigated with approximately one fifth of the manpower.
The tremendous increase in the efficiency of the investigation was attained
from the assistance received from the industry and the use of cooperating
subjects/witnesses from Phase I. Two counterfeiting card rings were also
dismantled. The card portion of the industry is relatively unencumbered by
fraud; these two rings are considered anomalies.
As a result of the attention brought about by Operation Bullpen, advances
have been made within the sports industry to combat forged signatures and
the fraudulent sales of items as 'game used'. Major League Baseball (MLB)
unveiled their own memorabilia authentication program in conjunction with
the culmination of Phase I. Their program is similar to what companies such
as Upper Deck, Mounted Memories, Steiner Sports, TriStar, and several others
have in place. Essentially, each piece of memorabilia is witnessed by a person
who places a uniquely numbered hologram on each item which is tracked in
a database. These methods have never been pierced by the forgers.
The adoption of witness authenticated programs by other sports leagues would
surely help to counteract fraud. In the non-sports marketplace, these programs
are almost non-existent. Phase II concentrated on the celebrity marketplace
since it is significantly more inundated with forgeries than the sports world.
Essentially, celebrity actors and actresses do not conduct paid signings
like athletes do. Obtaining a signed picture or poster of a prominent Hollywood
celebrity is through chance meetings.
Phase II was also an investigation in 'cyber space'. The industry, as a
whole, has moved in this direction where individual collectors can now easily
sell pieces. The forgers unfortunately led the way, realizing the anonymity
that the Internet provided for dealing their forgeries. Phase II convicted
the largest seller in the world of signed celebrity photos: Truly Unique
Collectibles, who mostly sold through their website. Phase II also convicted
numerous Internet auction site sellers, who generated millions of dollars
The subjects convicted in this investigation had all used the story line
that their celebrity signed pictures and posters were obtained by 'runners'.
Runners are people who happen to catch a celebrity at an event and obtain
a signed picture there. Most of the convicted subjects obtained one or two
signatures in this manner and then simply forged many more, claiming they
were from the meeting. All of the convicted subjects noted that it was impossible
to make a living as a runner. The amount of time needed to get the couple
of signatures a person needs, does not generate an adequate income. The overwhelming
number of celebrity signed photographs and posters being sold throughout
the world are sold under this pretense; this investigation would suggest
they are almost all forged.
Although Operation Bullpen has highlighted the fraud problem within this
industry, additional education of the public will help eliminate the crime.
The industry can be the key for counteracting this fraud with programs such
as MLB's. Almost all of the companies performing witnessed/hologramed signings
are for athletes. Hopefully, these entities will participate in and demand
these authentication programs. Educating the public might also create increased
pressure from the consumers for the development and expansion of authentication
Phase III of Operation Bullpen marks the sharing of this forged sports equipment
and memorabilia with the San Diego community. From the inception of this
investigation, it was a goal to provide local children's charities and crime
victim agencies with these materials so that they would ultimately be put
to good, honest use.