DNA throws fakers for a loss

Super technology helps NFL tackle memorabilia fraud.

Material World

January 30, 2000|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

If you think outwitting an NFL defense is complicated, try foiling counterfeiters.

Late last week, as the Tennessee Titans and St. Louis Rams fine-tuned their game plans for today's gaudiest of American sports extravaganzas, Jason Meyerson and associates kicked off a strategy millions of times more complicated than anything you can find in a National Football League playbook.

Meyerson and his company, PSA/DNA of Newport Beach, Calif., tagged each and every football to be used in Super Bowl XXXIV with synthetic DNA markings that are permanent, unique and invisible to the naked eye. "As methods of authentication have grown more sophisticated," says Meyerson, president of the company, "so have the criminals figuring them out. We've had to get smarter. And for all intents and purposes, this technology is foolproof."

At a time when the American sports memorabilia market has ballooned into a $750 million per year industry, the FBI estimates that a staggering 70 to 80 percent of such memorabilia is fraudulent. "There's no way to place a dollar figure" on the amount squandered on fakery each year, says Don Flanagan, vice president of Mastro Fine Sports Auctions in Oak Brook, Ill.

Whereas in more innocent times collectors might have accepted mere certificates or tamper-proof labels as authentication for signed balls, game-worn jerseys or autographed bats, "this technology creates a reliable link between the item and its authenticity" and "adds one more layer of insulation" criminals have to penetrate, Flanagan says.

In fact, it's a virtually impregnable wall. Each mark on the item in question contains a tagging of chemically synthesized DNA that includes four codes unique to the company, then a sequence of markers so complex a counterfeiter would have a mere 1 in 33 trillion chance of reproducing it randomly.

"Our proprietary lasers read the DNA material," says Meyerson, "and under the laser, the mark looks to the naked eye like it's glowing green or red." If a counterfeiter is clever enough to duplicate that effect, the item can then be sent to the labs of DNA Technologies, a Los Angeles-based company, for microscopic analysis. "At that stage -- if it ever gets to that stage -- we can be certain whether the item is the real thing or not," says Meyerson.

PSA, a subsidiary of Collectors Universe in Newport Beach, has been in existence since 1992 and using the DNA technology for about a year. According to Meyerson, "There's been a huge demand for a third-party company to authenticate memorabilia, particularly during the past year and a half," when sight-unseen purchasing over the Internet has exploded in popularity.

During that span, the company has DNA-stamped, among other items, Mickey Mantle's 500th home run ball, Hank Aaron's historic 715th home run bat, the ball St. Louis Cardinal Mark McGwire slugged for his record 70th home run in 1998 (it sold at auction for $3.1 million), game-used bases from the 1999 World Series, and the autographs of countless athletes. The same technology will be used as the official security mark for tickets and passes at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.

Super Bowl pigskins don't fetch seven-figure cash, but they're valuable nonetheless. Last year's kickoff ball, according to Don Renzulli of the NFL's league office, brought more than $10,000 at auction. Today's -- off the foot of St. Louis' Jeff Wilkins or Tennessee's Craig Hentrich -- will likely attract more.

The league has readied 120 balls for today's mega-tilt, and those the players don't keep for themselves ("We always lose a few," laments Renzulli) will be donated, per NFL custom, to charitable causes. Those can sell for up to $2,000, says Bill Barron of NFL Properties. "We'll never stop all the fraudulence out there," he says, "but this is the NFL's way of sending a message: We take the problem seriously."

Yet as seriously as his technology combats the fakery, Meyerson still can't help seeing his work as a cloak-and-dagger affair. Each Super Bowl ball has been tagged on exactly the same spot; he just won't tell you what that spot is.

"They can't foil us," he says, "but you know what? These guys are smart enough already. Why should I give them any ammunition?"

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