Pre-pandemic, FBI Special Agent Brian Brusokas would receive a call once a month or every two months relating to fraudulent activity within the sports memorabilia and trading card industry.
Since the hobby’s explosion the past couple years, generally a week doesn’t go by that someone in the FBI’s Chicago Division or from an outside law enforcement agency contacts Brusokas about a hobby-related case.
Brusokas, who is known in FBI circles as the lead agent when it comes to sports memorabilia and trading card fraud and forgeries, has certainly seen an uptick in crime as the industry has ramped up a few notches.
“The past two years, let’s say during the COVID crisis, has really, really impacted the hobby in both good and bad ways,” Brusokas told Sports Collectors Digest in an exclusive interview. “Good getting more exposure out there to the hobby, getting more people interested in it. And, unfortunately, … with more exposure, the unscrupulous people enter the marketplace and try to pull one over on the good collectors and some of the novices that are getting into the industry themselves just because they were fueled either by nostalgia purposes or just ‘The Last Dance’ syndrome or the speculative people that are looking to make a dollar on it who really don’t understand the industry, the history of the industry and the ins and outs.”
As the industry continues to boom, more and more cases are popping up, from the alleged sale of fake and altered cards at card shows to fake and forged memorabilia being sold on eBay.
On March 7, the U.S. Customs and Border protection announced it had seized a package they say contained fake Super Bowl, World Series and NBA championship rings. According to the CBP, the package, which was shipped from China to Florida, contained 110 fake Super Bowl rings from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs, 110 fake Atlanta Braves World Series rings and 10 fake Milwaukee Bucks NBA rings.
In another recent case, federal prosecutors filed fraud charges against a New Jersey man they say posed as a former New England Patriots player and purchased family versions of the team’s 2016 Super Bowl rings that he claimed had ties to Tom Brady. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Southern California, he sold one of the rings with Brady’s name on it for $337,000. He wound up pleading guilty in December to five felony offenses.
FAKES AND FORGERIES
When most people think of the FBI and sports memorabilia, Operations Bullpen and Foul Ball from the late 1990s quickly come to mind. Those successful operations busted dozens of people producing fraudulent material, mainly autograph forgeries.
Autographs are probably the easiest area for forgeries. As Brusokas always says, all you need is “skill and a Sharpie or patience and a pen.”
It doesn’t take many resources to fake autographs, especially if it’s a modern-day player with signed balls, photos and cards readily accessible. Vintage, on the other hand, can be more tricky to track down material to produce forgeries.
“As the forgers are getting better and more skilled and the money’s out there, it almost becomes worthwhile for a skilled forger at that point in time to go ahead and purchase an item, a ball that might cost them a couple hundred dollars, and they’re confident enough in their skills that they can get this by the industry accepted expert,” Brusokas said. “Autographs have always been very, very popular in the fraud arena.
“With the huge value placed on trading cards and the grading and authentication on those, there’s all the card manipulation that goes into it, the altering of cards, which the third-party experts are trying to police again. You throw on there market manipulation, the impact a false sale may have on future sales of like objects.”
Forgers used to concentrate on one player or a specific sport. However, these days criminals have spread their wings and now utilize multiple areas of fraud.
Brusokas is seeing an increase across the board: fake trading cards, trading card packs, autographs, memorabilia, game-used items, jewelry, you name it. That spans vintage and modern pieces.
“Maybe in years past it skewed towards the vintage, but with the rise in the past two years, the modern has really taken off,” Brusokas said. “The modern has really exploded. You get more people in there. Maybe the old-school collectors wanted to collect their heroes, the people that they maybe never even saw play but they had heard about, or as you’re growing up you hear your father or grandfather talking about these people vs. the more modern collector. They kind of skew it and they want to collect the individuals that they can watch right now and idolize, so it impacts every area.
“You mentioned rings and things like that, that’s typically the counterfeit area, the knockoffs, as people would call them — that’s always been around. That’s a violation of copyright or trademark on certain items where that would be jerseys or cards or rings. Not only on its face is that problematic, but also when it’s misrepresented and it’s something that it truly is not.
“You see it a lot in cards, for example. People will sell reproduction cards almost in a borderline evil way of misrepresenting what it actually is. At its basis, most of these cards, these individuals did not receive a license to reproduce these cards. On its face, it may very well be a copyright or trademark violation itself.”
Brusokas is seeing fraud cases run the gamut, from items that are less than $100 all the way up to six-figure pieces.
The longtime FBI Special Agent notes that collectors who spend big money on items generally are well educated about what they are purchasing and know where to go for authentication, so they don’t get taken. However, that doesn’t deter criminals from trying to pull a fast one on a collector.
“On the other end, you have the lower-level collector, maybe somebody who’s just getting into the hobby based on the last two years, found an interest, were always interested in it but stepped away and then saw, wow, this is a way to connect with my children or my buddies or things like that, so they got back into it,” Brusokas said. “They’re not as aware what to look for, certain dealer’s past, an authenticator’s reputation within the industry. So there are certain fraudsters that might not have the skill to get something past one of these higher-level collectors who has the resources to maybe even use a forensic laboratory to assist them in authenticating material.”
Brusokas isn’t at liberty to go into specific detail about how many resources the FBI is allocating to help prevent sports memorabilia and trading card fraud, but he said the agency takes the matter very, very seriously.
“What I can say is that I am on the FBI’s Art Crime Team, which is a group of a small number of agents that work fraud and theft and any type of collectibles market, cultural property, anything from museum theft all the way through fraud,” he said. “We have monthly phone conferences to discuss topics and trends, and I will say that every month there is an agent on that call that kind of picks my brain on the topic of memorabilia fraud. Even branching out, not just sports memorabilia fraud, but Hollywood, music, getting all the way through Pokémon cards as well.
“It’s a growing trend that the bureau is realizing is out there. And now you have companies out there with fractional ownership, individual cards or memorabilia items out there, and that could be subject to market manipulation, things like that. These are topics not only the Art Crime Team looks at, but also individuals who work financial crimes within the bureau are looking and taking notice just based on the dollars that are involved in these transactions.”
With the prices so high and the hobby so hot, Brusokas and his FBI cohorts are expecting cases to stay high and possibly skyrocket even more.
“The industry has been under the spotlight now since everybody was locked down, and not only do the collectors and individuals looking to get into the hobby again, they see it, but the bad guys see it as well,” Brusokas said.
“The rise in fraud, it’s kind of sad to say, but I remember having talks with dealers back in 2009 at the National Convention and they were talking about how great the sales were and how the industry had really exploded and everything. I kind of smiled and I said, ‘You guys should hope to stay here.’
“That level that it was at then was a really good level, everybody was making money, it was successful, you had a lot of people in the room. But I said, ‘Once you guys make it to that next level where you guys are on the news all the time, constantly talking about record prices being broken, the bad people will then go ahead and see that and look at it as an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of this fraud.’”