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Last Updated: Friday, 3 March 2006, 07:00 GMT
The Fake Football Shirt Sting
By Darragh MacIntyre
BBC Money Programme

In a car park somewhere in the North of England a man paces up and down speaking earnestly into his mobile phone.

It's about causing them grief, costing them money
George, undercover investigator
This is George. It's not his real name because he is an undercover investigator for British sportswear manufacturers Umbro, dedicated to defending the branded England football shirt against counterfeiters.

He's about to meet a trader selling counterfeit football shirts.

After several minutes the trader arrives, a price is agreed and a deal is struck for several dozen shirts.

The trader thinks he's just won another market stall holder as a customer. What he doesn't realise is that he's been caught red-handed.

Deception to achieve disruption

George is happy to defend the use of deception.

"It's about being in their faces, mixing it with them causing them grief, disruption, costing them money."

It may look like a big result for George and for Umbro, but it's only one small victory in a much larger campaign against the mushrooming counterfeit industry.

And there's big money at stake.

Are 9 out of 10 shirts fake?

Umbro have paid a reported 180m to England's Football Association for the exclusive rights to produce the official England football shirt, the best selling top of all time.

Michael Owen, David Beckham and Frank Lampard at the launch of the Umbro England Away Kit
The real thing: England's Away kit

The company hopes that this year's World Cup tournament could give them their most successful year ever.

But the huge popularity of club and national shirts has spawned a massive counterfeit industry which threatens to undermine the legitimate shirt business.

There are no precise figures for counterfeit football shirt sales in the UK - estimates range from 1 in 30 to 9 out of ten shirts being fake - but everyone does agree that it is a growing industry.

And Umbro's fear is that the counterfeiters will be the real winner in this World Cup. Sales of the bogus top are expected to run to the tens of thousands as the competition approaches.

Umbro's 007

Your soccer shirt could be funding illegal trade, gun crime and even terrorism
Open University

And that's where George comes in.

He's Umbro's very own 007 - often working undercover and trying to track down the fakers and blow their secretive networks apart.

That's why this Brand Protection Officer can't be identified.

George estimates that he has been responsible for the seizure of goods with a street value of 11m in his six years with the company.

The real problem for George is that, however many market stalls, small-time shirt peddlers and sports shops he busts in the UK, the flood of fakes from abroad seems to continue unabated.

He explains: "The shirts that we are seeing now in the UK are predominantly coming from Thailand. I would say at the moment Thailand is our number one priority for the manufacture of counterfeit football shirts."

So he has come up with a scheme to get inside the fakers' networks and track down the people at the other end of the supply chain - the ones who are making and exporting the shirts.

The Sting

Posing as a counterfeiter himself George eventually manages to make contact with a Thai counterfeit specialist and goes out to Bangkok to meet them.

He tells them he has an advance copy of the shirt pattern, but it is, in fact, a fake design, made up by Umbro for the very purpose of disrupting the Thai networks.

His cover story is very simple: "I am a counterfeiter from the UK and I am looking to get in the UK market first with the counterfeit design."

But will his cover hold? Will the counterfeiters be taken in? Will they agree to make shirts in sufficient quantities to do serious damage to their own business?

The Money Programme has unique access to this high-risk operation. Our three-month investigation follows the entire operation from start to finish.

Will "George" succeed in fooling the fakers?

The Fake Football Shirt Sting. BBC Two at 1900 on Friday 3 March.




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