The Force against fraud

How much would you spend on a poster signed by a star of the Star Wars franchise? Well, don't open your wallet just yet – frauds may be more prevalent than you think.

In the weeks leading up to the December 2015 release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, actor Mark Hamill, who had played Luke Skywalker in the original film version — and was rumoured to be reprising his role in the new, highly anticipated instalment of the lucrative Star Wars franchise — noticed something unusual.

Hamill experienced “an uptick in the number of fans asking for his help verifying his own signature on movie posters and other memorabilia,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “There was only one problem: He hadn’t yet signed any posters for the new movie.”

To counter a marketplace littered with Star Wars memorabilia bearing what the purchasers believed to be his authentic signature, the actor took to Twitter. “I’m so sorry there’s so many fans spending their hard-earned money for fraudulent signatures,” he wrote.

The actor took his public service announcement one step further, Entertainment Weekly reported, “responding to fans who asked about autographs they had already bought or were planning on buying, confirming jokes he had written on trading cards and showing them how to spot the unique way he uses his real signature. When asked why he was going out of his way, Hamill’s response was simple: ‘Because I owe it to all true fans to protect them from being victimized by dishonest dealers.’ ”

He continued to tweet advice to his fans, posting his signature and advising them to “memorize this REAL signature and you can start spotting the phonies yourself!”

How much were some people spending on posters and other memorabilia associated with the movie that was the fastest ever to gross US$1 billion worldwide (in 12 days, no less)? Quite a lot, depending on what they acquired.

In late January, memorabilia signed by Hamill (as well as items co-signed by other Star Wars alumni, such as Carrie Fisher) was being auctioned on eBay for as much as US$999.99. An 8 x 10 photograph (a print) “hand signed” by Hamill, Fisher, Harrison Ford and Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca) was offered at US$1,999.99. Many items were available and most were priced in the hundreds of dollars. The Hollywood Memorabilia website offered a signed Topps trading card for US$1,832.99. A signed Harrison Ford Han Solo card, by the way, was available for US$3,650.99. (CPA Canada has no reason to question the authenticity of any of the items mentioned.)

As Hamill went public with his personal antifraud crusade, his initiative caught the attention of California assemblywoman Ling Ling Chang. In January, Chang, inspired by Hamill’s efforts, introduced Assembly Bill 1570.

The key element of the proposed legislation focuses on dealers who sell any autographed collectible with a value of US$5 or more. “Whenever a dealer, in selling or offering to sell to a consumer a collectible in or from this state, provides a description of that collectible as being autographed, the dealer shall furnish a certificate of authenticity to the consumer at the time of sale,” her bill said. “The certificate of authenticity shall be in writing, shall be signed by the dealer or his or her authorized agent, and shall specify the date of sale. The certificate of authenticity shall be in at least 10-point boldface type and shall contain the dealer’s true legal name and street address. The dealer shall retain a copy of the certificate of authenticity [which should include a unique serial number] for not less than seven years.”

Under the proposed legislation, a consumer who could prove the information about a purchased item was fake could be entitled to recover “in addition to actual damages, a civil penalty in an amount equal to 10 times actual damages, plus court costs, reasonable attorney’s fees, interest, and expert witness fees, if applicable, incurred by the consumer in the action. The court, in its discretion, may award additional damages based on the egregiousness of the dealer’s conduct.”

If the bill becomes law, it will provide Californian purchasers with more support than likely exists for them at the moment. But just how much? There is no widespread enthusiasm for certificates of authenticity (COA) within the collectible community.

How does someone know if a signature is authentic? That’s hard to answer. Most sellers provide a COA but as eBay notes, “if you will fake an autograph you will fake a COA.” It urges consumers to deal only with sellers who offer “a lifetime unconditional guarantee. If you are unhappy, simply return the item [in] the condition it was sold to you.”

EBay also cited a statement by the Universal Autograph Collector’s Club (UACC), which it called “one of the most, if not the most, respected autograph organizations in the world.” The UACC, which had long renounced the use of COAs, addressed its reasons on its website.

“The UACC has been very vocal about the fact that [COAs] are totally worthless. The UACC does not issue COAs and always encourages collectors to get a signed receipt for merchandise, instead of a COA. Frankly, they aren’t worth the paper they are printed on. A COA is only as good as the dealer that has issued it. If you buy from a UACC Registered Dealer and get a receipt, you are following the correct procedure.”

Fake celebrity autographs are not a recent occurrence. In 2005, the FBI noted that “most industry experts concede that over half of the most sought-after athletes’ and celebrities’ autographed memorabilia is forged. Industry experts estimate that the autographed memorabilia market in the United States is approximately US$1 billion per year. Cooperating subjects and memorabilia experts estimate forged memorabilia comprises over US$100 million of the market each year.”

The problem was significant enough that, in the mid-1990s, “the Chicago Division of the FBI initiated a sports memorabilia fraud investigation targeting a group of individuals who forged, fraudulently authenticated, and distributed Chicago athletes’ autographed memorabilia [including Michael Jordan’s]. The case resulted in the conviction of [14] individuals in five states involved with forging and distributing forged memorabilia.”

While the FBI had some successes over the years with its investigation, dubbed Operation Foul Ball and Operation Bullpen, obtaining convictions in these kinds of cases can prove to be difficult.

In March 2014, a prominent autograph seller, Gotta Have It Golf Inc., won a six-figure settlement against Tiger Woods. Back in 1997, Woods and several other famous golfers (including Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus) accused Gotta Have It of selling signed pictures of the golfers at the prestigious Masters golf tournament.

The signatures were fake, the golfers said, and had several members of Gotta Have It arrested, handcuffed and removed from the golf course. The determination was based on a small sampling a private investigator had examined at a Gotta Have It location, which looked fake to him.

It took almost 20 years for the dust to settle, in favour of Gotta Have It, in a case that had numerous twists and turns. Despite 45 minutes of testimony by Woods, in 2014 a jury “found Tiger Woods’ company, ETW, liable for deceptive and unfair trade practices in a civil case. Bruce Matthews, a South Miami resident, and his company [Gotta Have It Golf Inc.] alleged that Woods breached a 2001 licensing agreement by not providing a specified number of autographs and photographs [a condition that arose after a settlement in the 1997 case],” the Miami Herald reported.

The jury awarded US$668,000 in damages to Matthews’ company, but interest will increase the total to about US$1.3 million, according to Eric Isicoff, one of Matthews’ attorneys. Woods’ company is expected to appeal.

How is a person buying a signed picture, poster or trading card supposed to navigate this incredibly tricky world of autograph fraud? There are rating companies, such as PSA, JSA and, in Canada, KSA, that have an excellent reputation for authenticating memorabilia (for a fee). But even they can be fooled.

PSA was involved in one of the greatest trading card scams ever when, in 1991, it graded a 1909 Honus Wagner baseball card as PSA 8 Near Mint-Mint, the highest grading ever given to a Wagner card. Wayne Gretzky once owned the card, which was later bought by a businessman for US$2.8 million. The edges of the card, it was later discovered, had been trimmed by someone to make it look more valuable.

Other than personally witnessing a celebrity signing a card or collectible, is there any way to know the signature is genuine? The odds aren’t great, especially as the Internet is rife with videos showing how to fake signatures.

Perhaps what is needed are more Hamills, celebrities who don’t want their fans defrauded. Thanks to social media, they can help combat fraud by becoming proactive in unmasking it. But just as there are few Luke Skywalkers in the galaxy, the chance of that happening is probably small. What Hamill did, however, was to become a force to be reckoned with.