By Kevin Nelson

For my book, Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Ring in American History, I did an interview with ESPN, which I later posted on YouTube. When you post a video on YouTube and someone comments on it, the comment is then relayed to you in your email in-box. This was what popped into my in-box the other day: “I am a stupid buyer of forgeries, and your mother’s breasts are fake as well.”

The email writer did not actually use the word “breasts,” but rather a euphemism for them that may be more appropriate for an HBO comedy routine than a magazine such as Autograph. Upon receiving this, I wondered to myself why, when people are trying to insult you, they always pick on your mother, not your father. In any case, another electronic raspberry arrived the next day:“Kevin Nelson and Tom Tresh look like a pair of refugee’s [sic] from the 100-pound bench press club.” And then, two days after that: “Operation Bullsh**t perhaps much more fitting?”

In all, I received five equally charming and witty emails from this person, who did not identify himself although I feel quite confident he was a man. I do not believe a woman would use a crude description of the male member on her email address, as this fellow did. Nor, in my view, would a woman think to attack me based on how much weight I can push around in a gym.

Clearly, the email writer did not like my book, which is the story of a national forgery ring busted by the FBI, and he did not like me promoting it on ESPN or YouTube. Nor did he like “Tom Tresh”—and by this he was referring not to the New York Yankee second-baseman of the 1960s, but rather to Chris Williams, who posts anti-forgery videos on his “TomTresh2” channel on YouTube.

I wrote about Williams in this magazine last year (“Whistleblowers,” Autograph, July 2009), describing him as one of the whistleblowers in the hobby who are trying to expose the crooks who make a living, and quite a handsome one at that in some cases, by defrauding collectors and the public by selling sham autographs. Williams has made approving comments about Operation Bullpen in his videos, and this may have been how my scatological friend found me out on YouTube. Asked by me to review the emails I received, Williams said, “I just visited your YouTube video and read all of the comments. I am sitting here laughing my butt off. They discredit themselves by making comments like that. That’s why I ignore them.”

Williams had to change the comments section on his YouTube because he, too, was receiving anonymous potty-mouth insults; now he must approve a comment before it can be posted under his videos. “The vulgarity is so bad it gets ridiculous,” he told me. “And the threats are an every day thing.” Williams’s harassers have even created an alternative YouTube channel where they post videos designed to mock him and his anti-forgery message. Similar to the emails, these videos are anonymous. The person who does them (there may be more than one) hides his face behind a cap on camera.

Anonymity is a staple of collecting today, indeed a staple of online life. Anyone who buys and sells anything online must deal with the blessing and curse of anonymity. The blessing is that you can zip around to websites and auctions, see what they have to offer, and zip off again without anyone knowing you’ve been there. The curse is that when you see something you like and stop to buy it, you may not be entirely sure who is on the other end of the transaction. Are they trustworthy? Someone you really want to do business with?

Looking to interview him for this piece, I emailed Roger Epperson, a music autograph dealer and friend of this magazine. I explained who I was, dropped the names of Autograph publisher Steve Cyrkin and editor Kimberly Cole, and referred him to my website. Some time passed before Epperson got back to me—a delay, he later confessed to me, he used to contact Cyrkin to confirm that I was in fact who I said I was. Once he was assured of my identity, we talked on the phone.

When negotiating with the Soviet Union over nuclear arms in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan often cited the maxim: Trust, but verify. Epperson was merely practicing a variation of this in his dealings with me, and it is an excellent strategy for autograph collectors and the memorabilia-buying public as well: Deal with people you trust. If you don’t know anything about them, check them out. Be wary of doing business with people you only know through their screen names. Hidden identities often mask hidden agendas.

Epperson runs a pair of websites—one, Signed, Sealed and Delivered, to sell autographs and advertise his merits as an authenticator and dealer; the other, Autograph Alert Truth, to expose what he feels are blatant autograph frauds. Because of the latter site, he too receives random anonymous emails from those he describes as “the bad guys.” “They make up things about you,” he says. “They make up stories that aren’t true. They try to discredit you and bully you.” Another way they do  this, he says, is by criticizing him in blogs—again, blogs in which it is hard, if not impossible, to discern who the author is.

If you go on Epperson’s memorabilia site, Signed, Sealed and Delivered, the home page has his picture on it. Another page, also with his picture, has his snail mail address, phone and email. Contrast this with other autograph sites where there are no pictures of the people involved, the blog posts carry no bylines, and the only way to contact the author, whoever he is, is through an email address.

In Operation Bullpen, I told the story of Stan Fitzgerald, a former New Jersey deputy sheriff who was probably the biggest distributor of forgeries in the United States in the 1990s. Everybody in the hobby knew about Stan the Man (although they did not necessarily know he was a crook) because, well, there was no way not to know about him. He was everywhere. He advertised in magazines, arranged private signings with celebrities and sports stars, and sponsored some of the biggest and gaudiest sales booths at the autograph shows. So just because a dealer is out-there doesn’t mean he’s not capable of defrauding you. But, without doubt, if someone has a taste for secrecy, it may be that he would like to remain secret to the law as well.

Autographs are an expression of personal identity. Everyone’s signature is different than everyone else’s. If you want to know something about a person, take a look at his or her signature; that will give you a clue. It is ironic, then, that some of the rough characters who traffic in autographs today (granted, this traffic is likely of the illegal kind) prefer to do so anonymously, in a negation of their personal identity. Their ability to frighten and intimidate, such as it is, depends on their unseen, unknown nature, much like the monster behind the door in a horror flick. But once the door swings open and the monster is revealed, letting the audience see it and take its measure, its power to shock weakens and ultimately ebbs away. So it is with the anonymous emailers and bloggers. They may fear that if they ever showed themselves, they would be revealed to be what they accuse others of being: shivering 98-pound weaklings.

But they are out there, these mischievous deceivers, and sometimes their targets are not crusading dealers or YouTube whistle blowers or book authors but ordinary collectors. Aaron Bilbrey is the founder of an eBay group, Collectors Against Fake Autographs, which he says he formed in order “to have a sense of camaraderie within the eBay community so collectors can watch each other’s back and keep an eye out for crooked sellers.” Not long ago he received an email from a member of his group who bought two signed footballs that he later determined were fake. After filing a complaint with eBay, the man was startled to learn that the seller of the footballs was sending someone to his office to pick them up. “On Wednesday some guy showed up at my office and said he was there to pick up the balls,” he says. This guy “showed no identification, wore dark sunglasses and a baseball hat, drove a Mercedes and was probably around thirty years old. He got into my office by just walking into the lobby and asking for me.”

But the man with the footballs refused to hand them over without a receipt, a request that was quickly rejected. “Instead he gave me $120 cash, took the balls, and demanded that I change my feedback.” Feedback ratings on eBay are how buyers judge sellers; poor comments can lower a seller’s feedback score and hurt one’s ability to sell stuff on the site. The man with the footballs had rated the seller negatively, and the seller’s representative— “a thug,” says the man—kept telling him, “You need to change the feedback.” The man continues: “I told him I wanted proof that they were real autographs. He said they were real. He ended every sentence with ‘Change the feedback.’ He wouldn’t leave and at this point I had about four other people in the lobby because he was being loud and intimidating. I finally said I’d think about it and he left.”

After he heard this story, Aaron Bilbrey was incensed. “It’s time we seriously fight back,” he says. “I’m tired of getting pushed around by these crooks in my hobby.” Many other collectors and dealers feel the same. But the fact is, there is simply too much money at stake for the crooks to simply walk away without a fight. They feel passionate too. So there is a power struggle going on in the hobby today—sometimes being waged in public, sometimes with the FBI and law enforcement involved but mostly not.

Wherever possible, collectors can help themselves by remembering to verify before they trust.

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