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.
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.
"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."
|“||Our focus is not the individual vendor. 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. ”|
|— Brian Moskowitz, special agent in charge of ICE in Michigan and Ohio|
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."
|“||This has a huge economic impact. 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. ”|
|— Brian Moskowtiz|
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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