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Plenty of Blame to Go Around for the Fake Autograph Market

Posted 5/9/2012 21:31 | Filed under Third Party Authentication

Anthony Daniels Autographs 8x10 Photo

Thousands, perhaps millions of people have been screwed by fake autograph sellers over the years. From buyers who spend their money on completely worthless signatures, to legitimate sellers like myself who have to compete with these criminals every day, all of us are victims. I've been thinking about this lately and realized just how much blame there is to go around for this problem which never seems to get much better:

The forgers. Obviously, without the perpetrators themselves, this problem would not exist. These scumbags probably tell themselves that their crimes are victimless (false) and that they'll never get caught (maybe true, maybe not).

Law enforcement agencies. Look, I get it. Fake autograph fraud isn't as serious as terrorism or drug trafficking or bribery. But it's still a crime and it's a pretty big business. The FBI's Operation Bullpen and follow-up Operation Foul Ball sting operations took place WELL OVER A DECADE AGO. Sorry, that doesn't cut it. That sends a clear signal to forgers that the FBI doesn't care, whether that's true or not.

Third party authenticators. If you've read my blog, you know I feel about the industry's overreliance on these companies. James Spence (JSA), PSA/DNA and Beckett Authentication Services (BAS) all have good reputations but are far from perfect. Global Authenticated (GAI) and Profesional Autograph Authentication Services (PAAS) are MUCH worse -- they appear to be corrupt to the core. It's interesting that on the San Diego FBI's Operation Bullpen page, it states, "The counterfeit market has been able to flourish because of the role played by authenticators who fraudulently (or mistakenly) certify forgeries as genuine signatures." The newest unfortunate industry trend is dishonest authentication companies popping up like weeds, most of which exist only to give a fraudulent stamp of "authenticity" to forgers who are possibly the same people doing the "authentication."

Marketplaces. The debut of eBay led directly to the growth of the autograph market, both legitimate and fake. eBay literally created thousands of new autograph dealers, many of whom were dishonest. It took eBay a long, long time to get a handle on this problem, and they made many missteps along the way. However, it's clear that eBay now is very much aware and concerned about this problem and has removed countless fake autographs and fraudsters from its site. Are there still plenty of fakes on eBay? Yes, of course. But compare eBay's aggressive actions in recent years to the blissful ignorance of Amazon, which has been notified many times about all the fakes on their site and hasn't taken any action to the best of my knowledge. The same goes for all the smaller marketplaces.

Celebrities and their agents. If I'm a famous entertainer or sports star, I guess I have more important things to worry about than people faking my autograph. But it's still stunning that while some of them care if their images are used inappropriately, they don't seem to care that people are forging their autographs and making money selling them. Anthony Daniels (authentic autographed Star Wars 8x10 photo shown above), who played the droid C-3PO in all six Star Wars movies, is about the only celebrity I know who obviously DOES care. If the celebrity himself or herself is too busy, then his or her agent should consider getting involved in cracking down on forgeries.

Companies that do paid signings. When I was working for Beckett Publications over 20 years ago and still very naive and uneducated about autographs, we published a magazine about Michael Jordan and featured some items signed by him. Or so we thought. We got a call from Upper Deck Authenticated, which had an exclusive contract with MJ, complaining about us inadvertently showing fake Jordan autographs. UDA, more so than other companies that do paid signings, has been fairly aggressive about protecting their contracts by going after fakes, though not as much lately it seems. However, as far as I know, companies such as Ironclad, Mounted Memories, Steiner and TriStar Productions have done almost nothing about this problem in recent years even though they are arguably affected more than anyone. As the author of this article about Derek Jeter autographs notes, the highly questionable Derek Jeter autographs "authenticated" by GAI are killing the market for real Jeter autographs certified by Steiner.

Customers. People who buy fake autographs and never realize it are not at fault. Your average person is fooled fairly easily and never discovers they've been had. However, sometimes customers who buy a fake later realize it, and often do nothing about it, or just pledge never to buy autographs ever again. That doesn't help matters. What they should do is to file complaints with the FBI, their state's attorney general, the Better Business Bureau and the marketplace (if applicable).

Dealers. I do my best to educate my customers on how to avoid being burned, but I know a lot of legitimate autograph dealers who don't bother. I also know a lot of autograph dealers who rely exclusively on third party authenticators to back the authenticity of their autographs. That's just plain irresponsible and lazy, especially considering how many mistakes these companies make. You're the one selling the autograph, so it should be YOUR reputation that's on the line, not some third party authentication company's.

The problem with fake autographs will never completely go away, but it could be minimized if more people took action themselves instead of considering it to be someone else's responsibility.