Federal agents in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) branch seized approximately $20 million of counterfeit Super Bowl-related items that would otherwise have been sold in Houston this weekend.
Operation Team Player, an annual project to identify fake merchandise leading up to the game, netted 260,000 counterfeit sports-related items and led to the arrests of 56 people, 50 of whom were convicted, according to an HSI press release issued Thursday.
"Criminal elements use major sporting events like the Super Bowl as an opportunity to sell substandard and counterfeit goods to the American public," Acting ICE Director Thomas D. Homan said in a statement.
"ICE special agents are committed to collaborating with industry and law-enforcement agencies to crackdown on counterfeiting that significantly impacts local economies and funnels money into organizations involved in additional illicit activities."
Last year's operation resulted in the seizure of nearly 450,000 counterfeit items worth an estimated $39 million. The 2017 project saw "significant increases" in the number of arrests and convictions compared to 2016, whose numbers were not published.
In recent years, the Super Bowl has increasingly seen counterfeit items produced and sold leading up to the game. For example, in 2012, agents seized only $4.8 million in merch.
This year's crackdown was announced at a press conference the National Football League (NFL) hosted on behalf of the HSI-led National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center.
"The NFL is proud to continue its work with ICE, the IPR Center, and law enforcement departments throughout the country to protect fans and consumers who are seeking an authentic NFL experience during the celebration of Super Bowl LI," said NFL Vice President of Legal Affairs, Dolores DiBella.
Among some of the items illegally imported and manufactured are fake jerseys, hats and cell phone accessories.
A government spokesman also warned consumers of scammers selling counterfeit products in Houston who may try to steal credit card and personal information when people pay for them.
"Super Bowl fans should beware of the scammers descending on Houston and flooding the internet with fake fan gear," said David Hirschmann, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Global Intellectual Property Center.
"Instead of supporting their favorite teams and players, unsuspecting enthusiasts who purchase counterfeit goods could be forfeiting their personal financial information to criminal networks and undermining American jobs," Hirschmann added.
"For consumers, the best defense against counterfeit sellers is a good offense: only purchase known brands from known sellers that bear the official holographic marks of authenticity."