For the past three years, we’ve been following what turned out to be a major sports autograph fraud ring, spearheaded by a former college and semi-pro baseball player from Ohio. The case, which was prosecuted by the Mahoning County Prosecutor’s Office but also involved agents from the FBI, involved the sale of over 27,000 fake items sold on eBay over several years to thousands of victims who spent over $2 million.
Cliff Panezich, the ringleader of the forgery ring that eventually involved his mother and several friends, will serve at least six years of a sentence handed down in April. He pleaded guilty to eight felonies, ranging from telecommunications fraud to money laundering.
Investigators say it was Panezich who created thousands of phony autographs on jerseys, helmets, balls, photos and other items and helped orchestrate online sales. Eventually, the dirty money enabled him to buy a home in Las Vegas, where he partied and gambled—until a knock on the door on December 1, 2014 brought an FBI agent and 13 police officers to his door. Two of the detectives were from the Canfield, OH police department who had flown to Nevada after following a trail that started with an early morning traffic stop and some stolen gift cards a year earlier.
Sports Illustrated chronicles the story this week, revealing several new details including some that will likely cause a stir in college football. A former college athlete, Panezich says he paid several members of the 2009 Alabama national championship team to sign autographs out of the back of a vehicle before starting his forgery spree. In fact, it was after he listed those items on eBay and discovered he was competing against fake Crimson Tide signatures that he decided it was easier to simply do the same thing.
The details of the case itself are very similar to the FBI’s Operation Bullpen, which brought down a massive fake sports autograph ring in the early 2000s. Panezich was the master forger this time, signing the names of superstars from major sports including LeBron James while the money poured in via Paypal.
Phony certificates of authenticity were created in an effort to lend an air of legitimacy to eBay buyers who might not know the difference between fakes and the real deal or who to trust for a COA. In fact, according to SI, it was the confiscation of some of Panezich’s Las Vegas garbage which contained some of those COAs—and his autograph “practice session” scribbles—that helped seal the case against him.
You can read the Sports Illustrated story on “Operation Stolen Base” here.