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Outside the Lines: Memorabilia Fraud
"Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, specifically the happiness of following the national pastime, had been undone," said the judge by the massive operation that forged and sold bogus autographs. The FBI calls its investigation Operation Bullpen. And what it reveals should cause any sports fan who has ever bought an autographed item to question its authenticity.
Using wiretaps and hidden cameras -- and you will see some of that videotape shortly -- investigators uncovered a ring of forgers and distributors flooding the marketplace. The demand was there.
And it continues for a piece, any piece, of America's sports legends. Even though with more popular athletes both living and deceased, you have a far better chance of buying a forgery than the real thing.
Ley- The ink is still drying on a freshly forged signature.
Unidentified male- This is a $6,000 baseball now.
Unidentified male- Oh, yeah. Oh, look at that.
Unidentified male- Have you ever -- Greg, Greg. Have you ever done one this nice?
Ley- Rather than a genuine keepsake, that ball is new product for an extensive ring of forgers and distributors, a multi-million-dollar conspiracy that forged the signatures of nearly every prominent sporting figure.
Unidentified male- Piazza. Shaq.
Unidentified male- Yeah.
Unidentified male- Magic. Bird.
Unidentified male- We put Rocket Richard in here.
Unidentified male- Huh?
Unidentified male- Rocket Richard.
Unidentified male- Who's Rocket Richard?
Unidentified male- He's an old Hall of Fame hockey name.
Phil Halpren, Assistant U.S. attorney- What I can say safely is that this is the biggest ring that the government has ever uncovered. The people we were after took pride in what they were doing.
They'd joke among themselves in fact. And we've heard many conversations about who was better at doing what forgery. And they wanted to do absolutely perfect work.
Unidentified male- Hey, who does those Jordans over here?
Unidentified male- Greg.
Unidentified male- He does it pretty good then. He does it better than I do. He makes that slanted.
Unidentified male- Yeah, he's got the slant.
Ley- The forgery and the profits ended suddenly 14 months ago when the FBI served 60 search warrants, seizing bogus memorabilia leading to criminal charges against more than two dozen people.
(on camera)- What might otherwise be the ultimate sports addict is actually an FBI warehouse here in San Diego, tens of thousands of pieces of sports memorabilia worth $10 million retail, all of it autograph, all of it forged.
(voice-over)- More astonishing than the array of items, the volume of both current and vintage signatures, is the naked opportunism of the forgers.
(on camera)- What did that do to the market when Joe D. was diagnosed?
Wayne Bray, convicted conspirator- The morning that Joe D. died, I got a phone call at my house at 5-30 in the morning from someone back east ordering 1,000 baseballs. And when I got on the phone to order 1,000 baseballs from the guy that I order my baseballs from, he said, "Do you want to buy any Joe D. balls?"
Ley- There was a similar demand during the summer of 1998 as Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa not only changed history but unknowingly created a criminal market in their signatures.
Halpren- Tens of thousands of different counterfeit autographs done by scores of different forgers across the country. As quick as Mark or Sammy would hit a home run, the balls would be produced. Home run 68, thousands of them with a little 68 on them. Sixty-nine, thousands. Seventy...
Unidentified male- There it goes. Can you catch the 70?
Halpren- ... thousands.
Mike, Convicted forger- To a trained eye down here, this last loop that Mark McGuire does, it's very distinct.
Ley- Mike is a convicted forger who was among those who jumped on the home run bandwagon.
Mike- McGuire's signature was desired on the sweet spot. And the fact of the matter is, Mark McGuire came out and said not only did he sign very few autographs, he did not sign on the sweet spot.
But the public wanted them on the sweet spot. So a Mark McGuire signature was typically found on a side panel ball right here, something like that.
Ley- Mike faces up to three years in prison when he's sentenced this month. He calls his skill not a gift, but a curse. Picking up a pen for the first time in a year, he offers a Hall of Fame tour.
Mike- Like we discussed, there's Jerry Rice. Jerry Rice is -- that's Joe Montana right there. A lot of times, you'll see these two together. Dan Marino, 13. And you compare that three, for instance, on something like Shaquille O'Neal, and a Dan Marino three would look something like this. And Shaq would look not quite as sharp in there like that.
And I guess going on, we could even talk about a guy like Brett Favre. And then his four wouldn't even really look like a four. It was one of these kind of things, something like that, almost look like an X.
Ley- Forgers also created a market in so-called pot (ph) pieces, counterfeit signatures on real antique paper that was often cut from old library books.
Halpren- It's probably done more to ruin the marketplace than any other single act of forgery. You take that old piece of paper that's 50 or 60 years old, and you put it in a huge frame with a glorious black and white picture of Babe Ruth leaning against Lou Gehrig. And all of a sudden, that little piece of paper you ripped out of a library book is worth $5,000, $7,000, maybe even $10,000.
Ley- And like many high end items, accompanied by a document asserting the forgery is very real.
Bray- Any certificate of authenticity can be made to look great. You can make your own holograms. You know, all the people that say they have the three-step authentication process where a witness of their company witnesses the autograph and then its hologram is affixed to the item. And then it's witnessed being put away or whatever, that's a lie.
Ley- As well as the adage that if the price is too good, it can't be real. In this criminal hall of mirrors, the more popular the athlete, the more expensive the item, the more likely it is to be fake.
Halpren- If you are looking at a Mark McGuire signature, it's almost a guarantee, 99.9 percent it is a forgery.
Bray- It's a matter of trust. It's a matter of knowledge. If you think you're an expert and you want to buy something that you didn't see being signed, you're taking your chances.
Ley- That's the golden rule, right?
Bray- Yeah, if you didn't see it being signed, it's probably not good, period.
Ley- The ring leaders convicted so far have received sentences of more than three years in prison as well as forfeiting assets to the IRS. Up to two dozen additional people may also be prosecuted.
We should note that Disney, which owns ESPN, will next year begin to auction signed sports memorabilia online. Disney says it will authenticate the signatures with holograms and package seals, videotaping the entire process.
Oh, and that Mark McGuire baseball that Mike signed for us, it has already been labeled a forgery by the U.S. attorney. You would think that would render the ball worthless, about 12 bucks, what we paid for it. But in the perverse autograph economy, an officially designated forgery from the biggest autograph bust in history might actually have a greater value.
Next up, I will be talking with a former NHL star who was working to fight collectibles fraud, with a legendary baseball collector, and with the head of security for Major League Baseball.
Ley- Welcome back. Joining us this morning from Boston, Cam Neely, a 13-year star on the National Hockey League where he signed countless autographs. And he now works in the field of anti-fraud and brand protection.
Until Barry Halper recently sold and donated much of his baseball memorabilia, he had the largest such collection in the country. Barry joins us from northern New Jersey.
Kevin Hallinan is the senior vice president of security for Major League Baseball. He joins us from Rockland County in New York State.
Cam, let me ask you, you have had a firsthand encounter with fraudulent autographs. Tell me about it.
Cam Neely, Vice President, Brand Management for Genuone, Inc.- A couple of times actually, Bob. I was actually in Atlanta visiting a friend of mine a number of years ago.
We went to a restaurant's sports bar. He goes, "Yeah, they've got your jersey hanging up on the wall." He took me over to where it was. And it had a signature on it. But it clearly was not mine.
And the company I'm working for now, oddly enough the CFO of the company of GenuOne brought an autograph picture for me to personalize to his son. It was in a nice frame, as they talked about earlier. But it clearly wasn't my signature.
So it does happen. And hockey obviously doesn't get the exposure that the other sports do. But guys like Gretzsky and Lemieu (ph) and Orr, they're countlessly getting their signature forged.
Ley- Barry, let me ask you, we hear estimates about how much of the stuff out there is bad. You would have a better handle on it than just about anybody. How much of the stuff out there is bad?
Barry Halper, Sports Memorabilia collector- Well, after seeing the piece just shown, I would say it's probably in excess of 50 percent that is not real. And I'm amazed at today's players how they sign. I think that adds to the problem because the scribbles they make for the signature adds to anybody wanting to forge those signatures.
You know, wherever there is money to be made is the most thievery. And you go back years ago with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle. They wrote every autograph as if it was their last one. And there's a big difference between today's players and players of that era.
Ley- Kevin, I've got to confess I was watching you watch the piece. And you looked like a 25-year veteran of the NYPD, which you are, as you watched that piece.
Kevin Hallinan, Senior Vice President of Security, Major League Baseball- Well, yeah, Bob. It's obviously very disturbing to baseball and to our fans to see something like that. As it turned out, baseball, my office, was involved in the very beginning of that case. And it actually was brought to our attention by Tony Gwynn, who made the same observation that Cam had made about seeing an autograph that obviously was not his.
Ley- Baseball is trying to do something about it, Kevin. What can baseball do?
Hallinan- Well, what we're doing now, in fact in the next couple of weeks, baseball will be announcing a new innovative program, which is really going to impact dramatically on those folks who engage in that kind of activity. So I think we finally really have the technology available to us that can impact on those practices.
Ley- Well, Cam, your company deals in holograms. You saw one of the convicted conspirators say you can make your own holograms. You told me off camera you can buy on the black market holograms. Is anything foolproof?
Neely- Well, I don't think anything is foolproof. We don't actually deal in holograms. We think holograms are kind of a Band-Aid for the problem.
We have a number of different technologies that we can use, covert or overt where you can actually take a handheld scanner and scan a certain mark on the product to find out if it's authentic or not. We can also put it in a hologram so if the consumer wants the warm and fuzzy of a hologram. But we can also put a bunch of information in the hologram where you can find out if it's a real authentic piece or not.
Ley- Barry -- go ahead, please.
Halper- OK, I was going to say that some of the players that are signing these autographs at conventions and card shows, that's where you know you can get an authentic autograph, when you pay the price and you see them sign it on your personal item that you give to them. But there are so many items that are being reproduced that it really is a very, very difficult avenue to pursue.
You take Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig or Mickey or Joe, as I said before, they wrote every autograph as if it was their last. But they really took pride in the way they wrote. And I think today's players should take some pride and try to write clearly.
Sometimes you see like a Frank Thomas. You see the F and then you see the T and number 35. That's the only way you know it's him. But I'm sure it's easy to reproduce because it's not a normal signature.
Ley- Well, we've got some videotape. Mike Mussina just yesterday, of course the newest New York Yankee signing that massive $88 million contract, had a signing in Baltimore and folks lined up to get his autograph. And, of course, he's leaving town coming to New York City.
Cam, let me ask you about the entire athletes' perspective on autographs. You've got shows. Athletes get criticized for signing for money. Athletes are pursued in hotel lobbies. What's it like being a pro athlete and having everybody want your signature?
Neely- Well, you know that when you go into Chicago, for example, at two in the morning because you played in Boston that night and you fly out after the game, and you've got 15 people standing at your hotel waiting for autographs, you know they're not there because they're strictly fans, you know they're there to make money off your signature.
Nowadays they hand you a certain pen that they want it signed on. They don't want your number, they want your number...
Ley- That bother you?
Neely- ... Yeah, it does. You don't mind signing for people that are true fans, and especially the kids. But now you know that they're actually paying kids to go get autographs. You hear those stories too.
So it does bother you. You want it signed, but you don't want to sign for somebody who is going to make money off it either.
Ley- OK, we'll stop right there and pick up with the question of autograph fraud as we continue with Cam Neely, Barry Halper, and Kevin Hallinan on Outside The Lines.
Bray- Of the vintage stuff, of the good vintage stuff that's out there, maybe 25 percent is authentic.
Ley- Seventy-five percent fake.
Bray- I'd say so right now.
Ley- That one of the convicted conspirators.
We continue with Cam Neely, Barry Halper, and with Kevin Hallinan.
Barry, of course as the legendary collector that you are, you've actually had on occasion, you've been taken, frankly, haven't you on occasion?
Halper- Absolutely. I think everyone in this hobby at some time or another has been duped. And I want to point out that if you go to a show and you see a Babe Ruth baseball selling for $500 at a table, you'd better be aware of that because that's way too low, below market conditions.
And especially, I have seen Babe Ruth balls signed on a Bobby Brown American League President ball. So, you know, he was president in the early '80s. That's certainly impossible to have been done. But someone did it.
Ley- And you've seen more frauds recently, haven't you?
Halper- Oh, yeah. And also any baseballs that are signed from Sharpie pens from players who played in the '20s and '30s, you know that's a fraud because they didn't have Sharpies then.
So there's a lot of things to watch for and especially, as you mentioned at the top of the show, the cuts that are framed and matted, they look beautiful. The cut is these people who look for these old antique books and scrapbooks and cut out the paper and do their forgery and then frame it and mat it. And it adds some authenticity to the person who's buying it.
Ley- Yeah, the paper is real. And the ink is real. And the pen is real. But the signature isn't.
But, Kevin, we talked about autograph shows. This has been a particularly troublesome area image-wise for baseball. You've had tax convictions going back to the 1980s and early '90s in this field. What can baseball tell players about this entire issue?
Hallinan- Well, Bob, we go into spring training each year and meet with our individual teams. And that is an area that has been addressed in the past. And, in fact, we brought the IRS into spring training to talk about some of the unscrupulous practices of some of these dealers, and again not all of them.
We have given the players an 800 number to give us a call if in fact they or their family observe locations that are selling fraudulent autographs. And they've taken advantage of it.
We have worked independently with other prosecutors, United States attorneys, on separate cases, obviously not the volume of this case. But the public has told us as well that if there is sufficient grounds to go forward, local DAs and U.S. attorneys have, and the players have cooperated.
Ley- Cam, when you go out and speak to different companies represented your concern, what are some of the questions you get in response when you make your presentation?
Neely- Well, we've never been thrown out, which is a good sign out of a company. The very interest in what we have, it's just an education process. We try to build a full strategy and put a strategy in place.
Ley- They recognize there's a problem though, people that have brands and names they need to protect.
Neely- Oh, absolutely. And more so now than maybe 10 or 15 years ago. Their brand is their name. And they're very concerned about their brand and the erosion of their brand.
So we're trying to -- and we don't have the same solution for everybody either. We're not just, "Here's a hologram. We're going to solve your problems," because we want to get inside their problems, find out where their problems is and how best to solve it.
So it takes a lot of time and effort. But we have, like I said, a number of technologies that we can work in different areas with some of these clubs.
Ley- Well, Barry, Cam's company has some methods at their disposal. Baseball is going to be rolling out an initiative. What will work, aside if you can't see the athlete sign in person? How do you authenticate?
Halper- Well, there's a certain way of knowing the -- you have to know when you've seen these autographs in person. If you get them from a company that has a certificate of authenticity, you'd better certainly beware that that company is who they say they are, and they have a lot of credibility.
Just recently, I'd say about six months ago, I promise Kevin I'll send him a copy of this because I kept a copy of this letter, someone had offered me a Lou Gehrig letter from 1938. Two problems with the letter.
They forged -- they had a company print up his address. It said "Lou Gehrig, Larchmont, New York." But someone had to be probably between the age of 20 and 30 who did this. They put a zip code on. And in the letter, he answers the question as if you wrote him the letter. And it said, "Dear Bob, I think the Yankees will repeat again this year as the AL East champs and get into the World Series."
And actually, anybody who knows baseball knows the AL East did not exist in 1938. They only had eight teams.
Ley- Have you turned that letter over to the police, or are you going to send that to Kevin?
Halper- No, I didn't buy it. So...
Ley- What did they want for it? How much?
Halper- ... He wanted me to make him an offer. But I wasn't interested in it. I just laughed at it, like look what's going on in this hobby now. But I have that letter. And, Kevin, I'll send it to you so you can have a little chuckle yourself. I hope nobody bought it. But somebody will get taken. And the person I was dealing with was not the person who -- he got the letter from, you always get it from someone else or he bought it at a show. There's never any names involved because you don't know who's trying to promote somebody else.
Ley- Kevin, in about two sentences, Operation Bullpen has made an impact for the time being. Will it be a lasting impact?
Hallinan- Bob, I think it's going to be tremendously helpful. The FBI did a great job. And I think, yes, I think with the new initiative by baseball and the great interest in memorabilia, I think we are finally on offense instead of defense.
Ley- OK, gentlemen, thanks a great deal. Thanks to Cam Neely and to Barry Halper and to Kevin Hallinan. Thanks for being with us today.
Next up, reflections on Walter Payton's donation and organ donation, his legacy. We'll take a look on Outside The Lines.
Ley- Thanksgiving Sunday last week we looked at the legacy of the late Chicago Bear Walter Payton and the area of organ donation. And among our e-mails from our mailbox, a viewer from Allandale, New Jersey, writing- "Our community suffered the loss of a 27-year-old father, son, brother, and friend in a car crash last year. We find consolation in his ability to donate organs and tissues to 25 people, saving at least four lives. Until his unfortunate death, I had no idea how important organ donation could be."
From Denver- "I've worked in the field of organ transplantation for almost 10 years. For years, we've been fighting the stigma that the organ placement system is biased and inequitable, especially when celebrity is involved. I found it inspiring to hear Ms. Payton agree that the system works and is fair to all.
"The shortcoming to the system is the shortage of organs. As you said, signing your driver's license is not enough. We need to share our wishes with our family."
The interactive Outside The Lines is online at ESPN.com. The keyword, otlweekly, to visit our complete library of transcripts and video on demand for all of our Sunday morning programs. Also a link today to some questions about autograph fraud. This is also the place to address your e-mail comments, criticisms, and suggestions. Our address- firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ley- "SportsCenter" is back in 30 minutes. "NFL Countdown" in 60 minutes, Chris and the gang taking a look this morning at Donovan McNabb and his campaign to be known as more than just a running quarterback.
Now we take you to the ESPN Zone in Times Square, Dick Schaap and "The Sports Reporters." We'll see you next Sunday morning.
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