The US women’s national soccer team is extremely good at two things: scoring goals and selling merchandise. Even before it won a second consecutive World Cup championship Sunday, the players’ home jersey, which is designed by Nike, became the top-selling soccer jersey ever in one season on Nike.com, according to the athletic-wear company. Sales were still going strong after the historic victory.
But on Amazon on Monday, another story unfolded. There, the best-selling women’s soccer jerseys weren’t made by Nike but instead appeared to be knockoffs selling for a fraction of the company’s $90 to $165 price tags. Some sellers on Amazon appeared to have taken Nike’s own photographs and simply photoshopped out the iconic swoosh. At least some of the product listings were taken down after WIRED reached out to Amazon on Monday evening.
The situation highlights Amazon’s unending fight against fakes, including when they’re dupes of high-profile items. After years of counterfeiters plaguing Amazon, the company warned investors about the problem for the first time in February. In March, Amazon unveiled a new initiative called Project Zero, which allows some sellers to automatically remove counterfeit listings, without needing to go through the typical bureaucracy. (Amazon did not share whether Nike participates in the program; Nike and US Soccer each did not immediately return a request for comment.)
“Nike has already reported great sales after the US team victory. However, dozens more companies are riding the wave by creating their own versions of the official merchandise,” says Juozas Kaziuk?nas, founder of the ecommerce intelligence firm Marketplace Pulse, who first alerted WIRED to the knockoff jersey listings.
“Amazon strictly prohibits the sale of counterfeit products, and we invest heavily in both funds and company energy to ensure our policy is followed,” a spokesperson for the company said in a statement. “We employ dedicated teams of software engineers, applied scientists, program managers, and investigators to operate and continually refine our anti-counterfeiting programs. Amazon’s systems automatically and continuously scan numerous data points related to selling partners, products, brands, and offers to detect activity that may indicate a potentially counterfeit product and immediately block or remove it from our store.”
The spokesperson didn’t specify whether the company has staff specifically dedicated to monitoring merchandise and other products connected to major events like the World Cup. Other large tech companies like Facebook have deployed specialized teams to monitor their platforms for things like fake news during elections. While the two aren’t totally analogous, Amazon may be in need of something akin to a viral counterfeit task force to combat nimble merchants who offer new fake products each time news breaks or trends change.
As of Monday afternoon, at least six of the top 10 best-selling women’s jerseys on Amazon appeared to be Team USA knockoffs. To get there, sellers used a variety of tactics familiar to close observers of the company. Some merchants purchased Amazon ads for their fraudulent products, so the items would appear ahead of Nike’s officially-licensed USWNT jerseys, which are also available on the site. Other Amazon sellers offered their knockoff soccer shirts under official-sounding brand names, like “USA” (that merchant, for some reason, also deals in flavored condoms.) “On Amazon, a brand is a string of characters. It doesn’t need to be a trademark or exist anywhere really,” says Kaziuk?nas. “So sellers abuse that for all sorts of reasons.”
Counterfeiting is a booming worldwide industry that affects brands that manufacture everything from makeup to hippie sandals. But sports merchandise is especially ripe for knockoffs, since official T-shirts and jerseys tend to be relatively expensive but not especially hard to copy. In January, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, along with other US law enforcement agencies, seized over 280,000 counterfeit sports-related items worth an estimated $24.2 million. Three months later, Customs and Border Protection intercepted over $11 million in fake professional and college sports rings. And last summer, CBP caught four shipments of fake World Cup soccer jerseys headed to Texas that were worth an estimated $66,000.
At least for now, Amazon likely can’t catch every sports-related knockoff that third-party sellers try to list on its site. But the Women’s World Cup was one of the biggest sporting events across the world for an entire month. Counterfeiters seized on the moment, and Amazon wasn’t there to stop them.