The NFL's High-Tech Race Against Super Bowl Ticket Counterfeiters

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Dummy tickets for a past Super Bowl, which also was not attended by Bay Area politicians.  (Michael Heiman/Getty Images)

The big game is less than three weeks away at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, but you'll be hard-pressed to find a picture of a Super Bowl 50 ticket anywhere. At least a real one. The financial stakes are just too high.

"We aren't releasing the artwork yet," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said by email. "We do not want to give the bad guys the opportunity to start trying to design counterfeit tickets."

The bad guys are sophisticated counterfeiters skilled in technology, graphic arts and marketing, who can make thousands of dollars quickly, said Kit Welsh, assistant special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations. Super Bowl counterfeiting, she said, is a very large problem and seems to be getting larger every year because scam artists can replicate the holograms and other security features on the tickets.

"Years ago, when the first holograms came out, I think a lot of people thought, 'Well, this will work,' but now there's the ability to mimic holograms that is very difficult to tell the difference."


Ironically, but not surprisingly, a technique for hologram embossing was invented in Santa Clara in the 1980s to combat counterfeiting, said Brian Jenkins, who advises the Rand Corp. on anti-terrorism issues. Today, he said, reproducing Super Bowl tickets is a growth industry for criminals and a high-tech race between the NFL and counterfeiters.

"More sophisticated counterfeits actually replicate the hologram itself," said Jenkins. "They can do this with equipment that probably runs at perhaps $20,000 or less. There is a lucrative market."

Case in point: the 2015 Super Bowl in Arizona. Welsh said the average price for tickets on the resale market reached well  over $4,000. Counterfeiters were able to sell some tickets for more than double that price.

"Tickets were going a few days before the game and on game day for as much as $10,000," said Welsh. "So you don't have to sell a whole lot of them to make a whole lot of money."

She said the safest way to purchase tickets online is through the NFL or its authorized ticket resalers.

So how do fans keep getting taken so easily?

"What makes it really insidious is most of it happens online and it's much more difficult for a consumer to distinguish," said Welsh. "They can't look at the ticket, they can't feel it."

Fans who unwittingly buy fakes usually don't find out until the tickets don't scan at the entrance to the stadium. More security features are built into the tickets each year, said Dolores DiBella, the NFL's attorney in charge of anti-counterfeiting.

"Some are covert, some are overt, some are easily visible, others aren't. But I can tell you the hologram, that is one feature that has been used in past Super Bowl tickets, will be used this year."

DiBella said the NFL will hold a news conference a week before the Super Bowl to advise last-minute buyers what to look for on their tickets.

The NFL is also cracking down on the sale of fake NFL Super Bowl swag, from jerseys to beanies to headbands. The league and law enforcement are targeting huge warehouses and online stores filled with counterfeit sports gear -- much of it coming from China.

In coming weeks the NFL will again be kicking off a program called "Operation Team Player," which busted a record-breaking 5,000 websites last year and seized $37 million in fake merchandise.

Also at the request of the NFL, the San Jose City Council passed an ordinance limiting where local vendors can sell merchandise the week leading up to the Super Bowl. It's called a "clean zone."

Licensed San Jose sports street vendors will not be able to sell Super Bowl swag in their usual spots.
Licensed San Jose sports street vendors will not be able to sell Super Bowl swag in their usual spots. (Beth Willon/KQED)

Steve, a licensed vendor who didn't want to give his last name, sells what he calls "gray area merchandise" a few blocks from the SAP Center, where the NFL will hold a big  kickoff event before the Super Bowl. He won't be in his usual spot come Super Bowl week because of the "clean zone," which he says is over the top.

"I can't sell downtown, I can't sell at San Pedro Square. There's a blackout zone way and above what there should be on blackout zones. They've got all the areas covered," said Steve.

The NFL, on the other hand, will open a store in downtown San Jose during Super Bowl week and have NFL vendors at all the hotels where the fans are staying, said Tammy Turnipseed, events director for the city of San Jose.