Collecting sports memorabilia has been an American pastime for nearly a century. Devoted fans seek out souvenir items such as jerseys, equipment, cards, or other items that have direct connections to famous players or historic games. Collectors’ enthusiasm and willingness to spend are higher than ever - and scammers have noticed. Legal cases in recent years have shed light on a widespread fraud problem threatening the sports memorabilia trade. Since many items are now sold online, it can be harder than ever to trust that a seller or product is genuine.
“Game-used” items are highly sought after. Buyers prize items that saw action on the court or field as valuable parts of sports history. Consumers should be aware that there is a significant difference between “game-used” and “game-issued.” For example, a game-issued jersey was designed for the player to wear, but it may not actually have been worn. There’s nothing wrong with selling that kind of game-issued item—unless the seller scuffs it up and tries to pass it off as game-used for a higher price.
Autographs are even trickier. With the use of autopen, manufacturers can reproduce ink signatures hundreds of times. Again, there’s nothing wrong with selling autopen-signed items as long as they’re not misrepresented as personally signed by the player and priced accordingly. Buyers also need to watch out for online listings that describe items as “hand-signed” without specifying whose hand signed it. That could be technically correct but still highly misleading.
Outright forgeries can be the hardest to spot, and this issue has plagued collectors for decades. If you don’t have time to become an autograph authentication expert, but still want to make purchases, here are some steps you can take.
How the scam works - an example
While searching for an authentic jersey online that has the original team logo on it, a site comes up in the search promising great deals and fast shipping. It might be in the form of a social media ad or a quick web search.
The store name doesn't sound familiar; however, it has great photos and cheap prices, making it so believable that an order is placed. The credit card is account charged at check out and a confirmation is emailed. Everything seems normal, until weeks pass and the jersey never arrives. The anticipation of having a keepsake of a favorite team is suddenly dashed as the realization that neither the company nor the website exists when trying to connect with someone in customer service.
How to avoid sports merchandise scams:
- Be wary of deals that seem too good to be true. If the price of an item, collectable or not, is significantly less than what it is on other well-known retailers’ sites, this is a red flag that it might be a scam.
- Research the company before you purchase. If the company is unfamiliar, check BBB.org to see if they have a BBB Business Profile, or BBB Scam Tracker to see if anyone else has reported them as a scam. Look for contact information on the website such as a phone number or brick and mortar address as well as a robust social media presence to help determine if the company truly does exist.
- Never wire money or use a prepaid debit card as payment. Both payment types are often requested by scammers and, once the money is gone, there is no way to get the money back. Instead, make online purchases with a credit card and only on secure (https) websites.
- Double-check COAs: Certificates of authenticity (COAs) are the norm for memorabilia purchases, especially for costly items —so it’s likely that scammers will try to provide fake ones. A valid COA should state the qualifications and complete contact information of the issuer. Before you trust a COA, make sure it contains full and correct details on who issued it, and then make sure they’re a legitimate and reputable authority. If investing in a less expensive purchase that is not offered with a COA, the buyer should still request a written representation from the seller about the authenticity and origin of the item. It is also essential to establish and get a written statement about the item’s physical condition before you purchase it.
- Take extra care at charity auctions: Some scammers target charities by providing “donations” of fake memorabilia. When considering a bid for an item at a charity auction, be extra vigilant and watch out for suspicious price valuations and shady authentications. When in doubt about an item, consider making a pure donation to the charity rather than an auction purchase.
- Seek a money-back guarantee: If possible, work with a dealer who can guarantee a full refund of your purchase if you ever discover it’s a fraud. Check all terms and conditions of the sale, especially limitations, before buying the item.
For More Information
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BBB serving Metro New York contributed to this article.
Cover image courtesy Pixabay