Fake autographs bring in hundreds of millions in cash for criminals

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - People lined up for hours just to get a Redskins autograph in Richmond last summer. The 'John Hancock' of your favorite athlete or movie star might be hanging on your wall right now. People are willing to pay big bucks for those kinds of keepsakes, but how do you know that prized signature is the real deal?

They are heroes on the screen and on the field. Redskins training camp in Richmond was a hot spot for autograph hounds. Fans held signs begging for them.

Richmonders have a history of seeking out the likes of former Hokie quarterback Tyrod Taylor, NASCAR owner Jack Roush, VCU basketball players and football star Tiki Barber.

The competition for celebrity autographs is fierce because those signatures sell and the crooks know it.

Our sister station WAVE went online and bought a half dozen autographs from sports, TV and the movies. They flew to Santa Ana, California and visited with Professional Sports Authenticators, one of the top certification companies of celebrity memorabilia in the nation.

"Forger doesn't care about you. They don't care if this is for a birthday present. They don't care if it's for a wounded veteran. They don't care if it's for your grandma. They don't care. They don't care if it's for a little kid. They don't care. They want to make the money," said principal authenticator Steve Grad.

He says the best forgers track down aged ink and antique paper to pull off the con. Others use a sharpie and a little artistic talent. Grad uses electronic microscopes and computers to sniff out the imitations. So what about the autographs WAVE bought - real, or fake? In his opinion, 4 out of 6 were bogus, including autographs from basketball legend Michael Jordan, baseball slugger Albert Pujols, and Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker.

WAVE paid about $300 for those four autographs, but Grad says they aren't worth a dime. He says when he put them side by side with his data base of 140,000 famous signatures, the slant, shape and sizing didn't match up. "I don't even think the person that did this one on the photo knew what her autograph looked like. They do anything to make money."

So how big a business are fake autographs? "The group that we were targeting was making over $100 million a year," said retired FBI special agent Jeff McKinney. He was a lead investigator for 'Operation Bullpen,' the largest fake autograph bust in the US. He helped bring down a counterfeit ring that sold forged baseball autographs coast to coast. Part of the problem for consumers is that expert opinions on what's real are just that: opinions.

Remember that Albert Pujols autograph? The one Grad said was a forgery? He said, "sizing slant, pressure. It just reeks to death of being bad."

The seller told us it's Grad who's got it wrong. When we told him Grad refused to certify the Pujols autograph, the seller wrote: "Authentication of a signature is a subjective opinion and not an exact science." "This autograph was obtained in person. I handed the helmet to Albert, he signed it and handed it back."

Steve Grad's boss, PSA President Joe Orlando, later said, "Our experts, just like any experts, don't get it right every time, but if Steve was emphatic the autograph was fake it says something."

The bottom line here is: the only sure thing in the world of celebrity autographs is the signature you get yourself.

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