As the Ravens drove toward the playoffs, Barbra Skarzynski wanted to buy her son a team jersey as a Christmas gift. She searched Google for Lardarius Webb gear, quickly found a site that billed itself as an official store of the Ravens, and bought a jersey for $70.
Weeks later, the Baltimore woman
received the jersey in a box with Chinese characters on it, from Shanghai. She discovered that parts of it were blue instead of Ravens purple. And worst of all, the cornerback's name on the back of the jersey — which was not licensed by the National Football League — was spelled "EWBB."
Skarzynski's experience illustrates a burgeoning problem for the NFL: counterfeit merchandise sold from look-alike websites based in China.
"If you're buying merchandise from a China-based website, you're probably not getting the real thing," said Anastasia Danias, the NFL's vice president of legal affairs.
With the Ravens facing the Houston Texans this Sunday in a playoff game, fans will be buying up jerseys, T-shirts, hats and more from websites, bricks-and-mortar retailers and street vendors. Official NFL merchandise is a $3 billion annual industry for the NFL and retailers.
How many of the goods will be counterfeit is largely unknown — but for legitimate businesses, the underground market hurts their bottom line and costs the NFL millions a year.
For years, NFL investigators have worked with local and federal authorities to crack down on sales of counterfeit merchandise at the street level and in stores. Nowadays, NFL teams are grappling with the proliferation of rogue websites that promote themselves as an "official store" and lure unsuspecting consumers with their polished looks.
In a game of online cat-and-mouse, the NFL is pursuing many China-based operators who target unsuspecting NFL fans with websites that sell unlicensed merchandise. Even as the NFL works to shut down these websites through the courts, more pop up to take their place.
"It's a pretty big problem," said Jeffrey Katzen, owner of the Baltimore Sports and Novelty shop in Owings Mills, which sells official Ravens items in-store and through his website. "It's like weeds: You get one patch, another patch comes up."
Katzen has seen many of the websites that sell Ravens knockoff jerseys, and hears from customers who complain about receiving poorly-made products — or none at all — after buying with a credit card.
Skarzynski thought she had ordered a licensed jersey from an official NFL site. But the jersey was not a licensed product, she later learned from the Ravens, and the team has asked the NFL to investigate the site: OfficialBaltimoreRavensJersey.com.
"It's buyer beware," said Skarzynski, who complained to her credit card company and was reimbursed. The site displays the Ravens' official logo, photo galleries of player jerseys, legitimate payment options, and the team's purple and black colors.
Officials at the website did not respond to an email request for comment.
In the past, NFL investigators have cruised the streets in league cities with law enforcement officials looking to catch sellers of products that infringe on the league's many trademarks. As the Ravens prepare for Sunday's game against the Houston Texans, the league will have a team of investigators in the Baltimore area doing the same type of surveillance, league officials said.
But NFL investigators are also now tracking websites, ordering knockoff jerseys as part of "evidentiary buys," and working with courts and federal authorities to shut sites down, according to court filings and league officials.
The Ravens now keep track of the illegitimate websites, said Baker Koppelman, vice president of operations and ticket sales. A staff member compiles a weekly list — typically a few dozen — and forwards the information to the NFL, which takes the lead on investigating intellectual property thefts, Koppelman said.
"We're getting emails from people who thought they bought directly from us, and they're asking us to help them," said Koppelman, who knows of Krazynski's situation.
Koppelman offered some tips for consumers: Look closely at the website's contact page and assess whether the site only offers vague ways to contact its operators, or none at all. Buy official products only from the Ravens' own site and other well-known or local retailers whom you trust. And, if the price seems too low — jerseys typically run from $80 for replicas to more than $300 for authentic versions — it is probably a knockoff, he said.
Last year, the NFL and law enforcement agencies seized 30,000 counterfeit jerseys and other items off the streets, with a value of around $15 million, according to the league. "If you're buying a shirt or a jersey from someone selling it out of a duffel bag, you're probably getting a counterfeit," Danias said.
The NFL, which shares the revenue from official merchandise sales evenly with all 32 teams, does not have a broad estimate of lost revenues from the sale of unlicensed products, through street sales and illegitimate online commerce.
The problem of these so-called "rogue" websites extends beyond the NFL to other products, including luxury clothing, digital media and prescription drugs.
This week, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agencies announced that counterfeit product seizures increased 24 percent last year, to nearly 25,000 cases.
The agencies have seen an increase in websites that ship products directly to consumers, and law enforcement officials have increased surveillance of international mail and express couriers. China was the source of 62 percent of the pirated and counterfeit goods seized last year by the agencies.
Federal and local law enforcement agencies can use criminal statutes to conduct investigations, seize pirated and counterfeit products, and arrest people. But it's hard to track down the originators of the schemes in China.
Companies and major brands, such as the NFL, Ralph Lauren and North Face, have turned to filing civil actions against the operators of hundreds of website domains, for infringing on their intellectual property. Many of these websites use legitimate methods for accepting payments from consumers, including credit cards and PayPal.
In a key case nearly two years ago, Polo Ralph Lauren and North Face won a $78 million judgment against Chinese counterfeiters. Though experts say the companies will likely never see payment from the Chinese operators, they were able to seize hundreds of thousands of dollars from the operators' online banking accounts.
In the past year, the NFL has filed a pair of lawsuits targeting 80 operators, mostly based in China, who were selling knock-off merchandise through hundreds of sites.
According to a lawsuit filed last month in federal court in New York, NFL investigators have traced the hundreds of websites to a group of Chinese operators who copy the graphics of NFL websites and field their own online stores.
The websites are usually registered to fake names and addresses, and these "rogue" operators set up new sites almost as quickly as the NFL shuts them down. One Ravens-related site that the NFL shut down was BaltimoreRavensJerseyStore.com.
"They're very prolific," said Tamara Tarbutton, vice president of North Carolina-based Vaudra Limited, which investigates rogue websites for the NFL and other brands.
The operators "create every different variation, including every NFL team name," Tarbutton said. "They'll add hyphens. [The sites] exponentially multiply like rabbits. It's so inexpensive to set up a website, and these Chinese counterfeiters have it down to an exact science in the way they populate these websites and redirect traffic."
The court tactics that the NFL and other major companies are using to take down trademark-offending websites are not without their critics. The NFL supports the Stop Online Piracy Act currently wending its way through Congress.
SOPA would give broad tools to government and businesses to shut down online entities that sell pirated and counterfeit merchandise, or stream digital media content. But Internet advocates say the law could have a chilling effect on free speech, due process, and e-commerce across international borders.
Skarzynski, who'll be wearing her official Ray Rice jersey at the game Sunday, is still angry about the botched Webb jersey. She believes the team and the NFL should do more to protect their fans.
"This one became the family joke," Skarzynski said. "We holler out, 'Go Ewbb!' It's become a joke, but it's really not funny."