Each Monday morning FBI agent Bob Walker trades his uniform—white dress shirt, dark suit and 10-mm Smith & Wesson—for a T-shirt and jeans. For four hours, at an FBI storage facility in Chicago, he becomes the antifan, defacing boxloads of pricey sports memorabilia.
Walker sprays paint over Michael Jordan's signature on a basketball. He uses an industrial-strength solvent to remove Dan Marino's name from a football. He covers Anfernee Hardaway's autograph with indelible ink. For the final touch Walker applies a stamp—FBI OPERATION FOULBALL, FORGERY—that identifies each item as seized contraband.
The FBI is completing the initial phase of Operation Foulball, the first federal crackdown on counterfeit sports memorabilia. This summer, in U.S. district court in Chicago, six men who operated a forgery ring were given sentences of 18½ months in prison to four years of probation for bilking collectors out of as much as $5 million.
Over the past decade sales of sports memorabilia have risen to an estimated $3 billion a year, and fraud has grown exponentially. Agents across the country are engaged in investigations of forgery rings, but so far the case in Chicago has been the most significant. "I do not think any of us expected this was going to be as large as it is," says Mike Bassett, the FBI agent who broke the case.
Bassett's interest was first piqued by a 1994 phone call from a collector who had acquired a game-used, autographed Frank Thomas glove and had been nagged by doubts about its authenticity. Pursuing the tip, Bassett and his partner, Walker, eventually nabbed a Chicago sports-collectibles dealer named Anthony Alyinovich. From 1994 through '96, Alyinovich led a conspiracy to make and sell bogus sports memorabilia: jerseys, bats, balls and photographs bearing the forged autographs of professional athletes. Alyinovich, 31, has admitted that during one five-week period last year he distributed more than 1,700 items of forged memorabilia.
Half the fake memorabilia the FBI has confiscated is allegedly "signed" by Michael Jordan, who rarely gives autographs. When the federal investigation began, agents and prosecutors interviewed a number of stars—including Jordan, Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen of the Chicago Bulls; Shawn Kemp, then with the Seattle SuperSonics and now with the Cleveland Cavaliers; and Frank Thomas of the Chicago White Sox—about their signing practices. Each athlete said he hadn't signed the pieces in question and expressed outrage about the forgeries.
Those conversations confirmed the suspicions of assistant U.S. attorneys Joel Bertocchi and David Rosenbloom, who then obtained search warrants and wiretaps that would help them arrest the producers of the fraudulent memorabilia. Bassett and Walker staked out sporting-goods stores around Chicago. They discovered, among other things, a run on size-13 Air Jordan basketball shoes, the ones Jordan himself presumably would use and then autograph. With the help of store owners the agents marked merchandise to enable them to trace the flow of raw material among the counterfeiters. Armed with a search warrant, they then visited Federal Express offices to open packages shipped by the forgery suspects and inspect marked goods that now bore bogus signatures. They resealed the containers and allowed them to be delivered.
Wiretaps and concealed cameras in a Chicago warehouse recorded the forgers' conversations and actions. On the wall of the rented warehouse the counterfeiters posted a chart designating who was responsible for each Bull's signature. Kevin Walsh of Chicago forged the names of six players, and Jon Schwartz of Des Plaines, Ill., signed for the remaining six. Schwartz and Walsh charged Alyinovich fees ranging from $5 per signature on a photograph to $50 for the autograph on a Jordan jersey. The jersey might fetch as much as $1,000 from an unsuspecting fan.
On request, Alyinovich donated forged sports memorabilia to charities that he knew would unwittingly market the material as genuine. (Buyers at charity events are often willing to pay top dollar.) The conspirators even attempted to con one another.
To create a patina of legitimacy, the forgers issued bogus certificates of authenticity. Stories were concocted to explain the merchandise's origins. Conspirators talked of having paid "hawkers" to obtain signatures outside arenas, hotels and other public places. More often they boasted of contacts who knew someone close to the athletes.