ICE puts freeze outside Comerica Park

DETROIT – Street vendors hawking low-priced, knock-off baseball caps and jerseys to the crowds heading into Comerica Park for the start of Major League Baseball's All-Star Game had no way to know that some in the crowd weren't what they seemed.

For a while, the goods were moving briskly, snapped up by fans unconcerned about the memorabilia's origins but pleased to find it at a fraction of its price inside the stadium. But for more than a dozen vendors, things quickly took an unappealing turn. One minute, they were engaged in a conversation with a pair of seemingly harmless-looking frat boy-types about the price of souvenirs. The next, they were in custody, watching their easy money carted away and explaining its origins to federal agents.

The vendors had just been ICE'd -- busted by agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the largest investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security. As part of the massive local, state and federal task force to provide security for the game, these men and women are charged with the responsibility of protecting U.S. citizens from enemies abroad. In cases like this one, however, that job also involves protecting Major League Baseball's intellectual property rights.

"A lot of people ask 'What the heck are you guys in Homeland Security doing with counterfeiters?'" said Brian Moskowitz, special agent in charge of ICE in Michigan and Ohio. "First and foremost, we're looking for vulnerabilities in our trade system; vulnerabilities that criminals -- and by proxy, terrorists -- could exploit."

In a normal week, those vulnerabilities typically involve more obvious criminal enterprises -- weapons, drug or cigarette smuggling, child pornography, money laundering. But in recent years, customs enforcement agents have begun scouring the nation's largest sporting events to uncover networks involved in selling bogus sports merchandise. In February, at Super Bowl XXXIX, agents working in conjunction with Jacksonville police seized more than 20,000 items, valued at more than $5 million, in a push they called "Operation End Zone." In May, 10 teams of customs enforcement agents seized more than 7,100 pieces of counterfeit merchandise at Talladega SuperSpeedway during a NEXTEL Cup race.

It's all part of the agency's effort to crack down on the phony merchandise that, according to General Accounting Office estimates, costs U.S. industry a quarter-trillion dollars each year, draining untold millions from the coffers of the major sports leagues. In the days leading up to the All-Star Game, working alongside city and state police and the U.S. Treasury Department, agents utilized more than 120 surveillance cameras that ringed the ballpark, NOAA satellite reconnaissance from the heavens above, as well as seven Coast Guard helicopters and another from the Michigan state police to seize almost 700 bootleg shirts and 500 caps, along with several hundred fake or illegally scalped tickets. They cited dozens of vendors and arrested at least three more. The cost of the raid may be staggering, but Moskowitz sees it as important work.

"Our focus is not the individual vendor," Moskowitz said. "It's the criminal organizations behind the vendors. Those organizations are driven by greed, and anyone driven primarily by greed is dangerous to the public."

It's not just that bootleggers offering discounts on Miguel Tejada jerseys unfairly compete with legitimate merchants inside the stadium, federal officials say. Sports merchandise represents just one part of a business that's potentially deadly. Counterfeit auto parts cause traffic fatalities. Smuggled cigarettes fund terrorist groups such as Hezbollah. Not to mention, as Moskowitz put it, "The same methods used to bring counterfeit goods into this country can be used to bring in weapons, drugs or people."

That logic helps explain why customs agents earn full cooperation from men like David Vansingel and Owen McGuigan, two Michigan state troopers pulled from their regular duties investigating violent crime to help the All-Star Game joint security task force in a variety of ways -- an assignment that included catching bootleggers. The only problem the troopers encountered in the days leading up to the game was that customs agents' work had been so effective, it left them little to do.

"It's been a hot topic around here lately," Vansingel said, adding that local, state and federal officials were also targeting counterfeiters during the Pistons' run in the NBA Finals little more than two weeks ago. "But the first couple of days, there haven't been a whole lot of vendors out."

The pair spent at least two hours before the Home Run Derby Monday circling the blocks around the stadium, without finding a single illegal street vendor. The authentic All-Star jersey that McGuigan bought for his son appeared to be their only souvenir of the night.

"During the [NBA] Finals, they were by most of the convenience stores, gas stations, selling merchandise out of their vehicles and such out here," said McGuigan, as they rolled past empty corners in an unmarked SUV. "Of course, now I don't know if there's many people out on the corners, out in the lots anymore."

The vendors, in fact, returned later that night, under cover of darkness. As fans left the Home Run Derby, they encountered the obligatory array of merchandise being sold from shopping carts on the street. A knock-off of the $63 jersey that McGuigan bought inside the park was going for $20 in the parking lot. But mingling with the crowds were several teams of ICE agents, police and U.S. Marshals.

The raids operated according to a template. Plainclothes customs agents would approach and engage a suspicious vendor in conversation. Then they'd identify themselves as federal officers. Police and marshals would step in for backup and a representative of Major League Baseball would examine the items in question to see if they were authorized merchandise. If the items were unauthorized, local police would issue a citation. There were two arrests. The maximum punishment for selling copyright materials is five years in prison and a $50,000 fine.

While some vendors grew belligerent as their wares were confiscated, most listened when officials explained that the alternative involved a trip to jail. All were offered a "letter of abandonment." In the end, each vendor signed it.

In the next week or so, ICE agents plan to check vendors' names against a list compiled at other sporting events. They're looking for repeats -- people who might travel the circuit of big-time sporting events full-time, and thus have closer ties to the sources of counterfeit materials. They also plan to question many vendors privately, to see if they can locate the bootleggers' source.

Even if that source lies in a foreign country, Customs agents say something can still be done about it. They have offices, agents and sources worldwide.

"This has a huge economic impact," Moskowitz said. "But it's something more than someone buying a hat at a cheap price. It's fueling activity that might be worse than the counterfeiting. At the end of the day, this stops if people don't buy."

Aaron Kuriloff is a freelance journalist and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at aaron.kuriloff@gmail.com.