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Immigration and Customs Enforcement sting nets millions in counterfeit NFL gear

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If you don't see the shield, it must not be real. (Getty Images)

If the New England Patriots try to run a fake sweep on Sunday, there's an awfully good chance that Osi Umenyiora or Jason Pierre-Paul of the New York Giants will be there to shut things down. And if fake Super Bowl merchandise is being sold, then Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will be there to shut that down, too.

Operation "Fake Sweep," which began on Oct. 1, 2011 and ended this past week, is an anti-counterfeit operation which resulted in $4.8 million worth of fake NFL merchandise being confiscated, including 42,692 non-authentic Super Bowl items. Special agents with ICE's Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) along with officers from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) were part of the national sweep which targeted stores, flea markets and street vendors. This effort also included targeting several hundred websites where contraband came into the country from overseas.

Last year, a similar operation resulted in $3.72 million in fake NFL related apparel and collectibles being seized. The uptick in merchandise and dollar value this year is a sign to ICE that counterfeiting is a real and growing problem.

"Counterfeiting is a modern-day crime of global proportions, and selling counterfeit football jerseys is just the tip of the iceberg of intellectual property rights crime. Nearly any item that will turn a profit is subject to being counterfeited. Counterfeiters are pervasive, increasingly sophisticated, and a real threat to the U.S. economy," Gail Montenegro, spokeswoman for ICE, told Yahoo! Sports.

"This type of crime takes jobs away from American workers and profits away from U.S. businesses."

The NFL, which assisted in this operation, was not the only professional sports league to feel the pinch of counterfeit sales. The dragnet for "Fake Sweep" netted items from Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League. All told, ICE reports 65,262 counterfeit items worth $6.4 million taken in by the four-month operation.

"Our message to consumers is simple — 'buyer beware.' Purchase from reputable dealers. Just as guns and drugs are smuggled into the U.S., these counterfeit items were brought into the country by criminals and the profits go to further their criminal activities. Look for quality stitching, NFL holograms, and substandard goods, just to name a few," Montenegro said.

"Counterfeiters use inferior materials and craftsmanship to produce look-alike products that do not benefit the teams, the players, or the hard working employees of legitimate U.S. companies and trademark holders."

ICE will continue "Fake Sweep" throughout the Super Bowl.

Follow Kristian R. Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer

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