Satellite and cable companies continue fight against piracy

  • HISTORY OF SATELLITE SIGNAL THEFT

    Canada helped to build a marketplace for pirates by not only being slow to launch their own satellite services, but also by trying to prevent the infiltration of U.S. television programming in the ...

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  • HISTORY OF SATELLITE SIGNAL THEFT

    Canada helped to build a marketplace for pirates by not only being slow to launch their own satellite services, but also by trying to prevent the infiltration of U.S. television programming in the country , said satellite industry expert Bob Scherman.

    "The Canadian government is incredibly protectionist when it comes to video programs," said Scherman. "They are paranoid about their citizens watching U.S. TV so they make it incredibly hard."

    The early goal of many pirates was to access pornographic channels, said Scherman.

    "If you could steal porn, then there was no record that you bought it," said Scherman. "If you got caught stealing, then you could say it was for stealing CNN and HBO, not porn."

    Back when piracy was at its worst, Scherman said hackers gained access to programming through access cards.

    Like floppy disks, the programmable cards, which told the satellite's descrambling set-top decoder box which channels to open, were sold through a plethora of sites including SatansPlayhouse.com and eBay.com.

    Once a hacker purchased a card, they could program it with a script that instructs the boxes to unscramble everything, including premium and PPV channels.

    Both the scripts and step-by-step hacking instructions could be found on the Internet.

    Over the years, piracy progressed from access cards to satellite receivers.

    Originally intended to help people capture foreign programming, the receivers were sold for around $100 in stores.

    However, pirates soon began selling modified receivers with the capability of descrambling access codes, allowing viewers access to paid programming.

    These modified receivers can cost anywhere from $300 to $400, Scherman said.

Recent lawsuits filed against Crossroads residents are indicative of satellite companies' continued efforts to crackdown on satellite television piracy nationwide.

Bob Lucas, of Cuero, and John Borden, of Victoria, were both sued in federal court in March for stealing satellite television programming by purchasing subscriptions to a pirate television service operated by www.dark-angel.ca, thus unlawfully circumventing the DISH Network security system and receiving copyrighted, subscription-based DISH Network satellite television programming without authorization and without payment.

In a separate lawsuit, DISH Network sued Dark Angel in Canada and seized the pirate television service's computer server and business records, which showed that both Lucas and Borden had been subscribers.

"It's an ever present issue. It's not something new," said Mark Lumpkin, DISH Network spokesperson. "Satellite television piracy is illegal, and we hope that people who are considering stealing satellite TV will obey the law instead."

A search of Satscams, a website that provides information concerning criminal and civil actions brought by NagraStar and their customers against those who fraudulently try to obtain DISH Network or Bell TV programming without authorization and proper payment, revealed stories of injunctions, frozen assets, prison sentences, seized records, judgments against defendants and at least four lawsuits filed within the last year, all against people who stole satellite programming.

Lumpkin declined to comment on whether more Crossroads-area lawsuits were forthcoming.

Federal Bureau of Investigation spokeswoman Shauna Dunlap said that as of Thursday, the FBI, which has jurisdiction over interstate theft violations and theft of copyrighted materials, had not received any complaints of alleged satellite programming theft in Victoria.

"We don't hesitate to take legal actions against anyone who attempts to access our signal without authorization," said DIRECTV spokesperson Robert Mercer, whose company is like DISH, continues to wage war against piracy. "We're very aggressive on that front."

Over the last 10 years, satellite companies have become more vigilant in their anti-theft efforts, hoping not to relive the days of estimated losses of more than $100 billion a year in uncollected revenue from piracy.

"It was one of the biggest victimless crimes in America. Now, it's very, very small," said Bob Scherman, editor of Satellite Business News.

Heavily involved in monitoring the issue of satellite and cable signal theft, in 2002, Scherman's publication published a piece on the subject titled, "Satellite TV Piracy Goes Mainstream."

Companies have worked to combat the issue of signal theft through technology and lawsuits, Scherman said.

At this time, Steve Fechter, supervisor of Corporate Communications for Suddenlink Communications, said his company did not have any information that would indicate an increase in cable theft in the Victoria area.

The lack of area cable theft is most likely because of the transition from analog to digital signals, which industry experts have attributed to the decrease in siphoned cable.

Meanwhile, DIRECTV's Mercer said his company worked to thwart off signal thefts by not only designing a hack-proof access card in 2004, but by also establishing an in-house Signal Integrity Team.

However, fighting back against pirates does have associated costs to both the company and consumers.

"This type of activity requires significant investments in time, resources and cost to the companies," he said. "Those costs pass on to the customers. It's the cost of doing business."

Consumers of pirate television services also lose financially in other ways.

The illegal satellite receivers, which are loaded with piracy software, that consumers use to access satellite company's descrambling control words and illegally receive and descramble copyrighted television programming, are often not well-constructed and do not last for long periods of time.

"People who buy them almost always end up getting ripped off," said Scherman. "You end up wasting more money than if you bought the programming to begin with."

"It will work for two days," he said. "You can't get a warranty from a crook."

New technology and threats of lawsuits also make the piracy business lest profitable for pirates.

"If you get visible, you are going to get taken down," said Scherman. "You can't do it under the radar."

These days, Mercer said DIRECTV's biggest programming worries stem from people paying residential programming rates for commercial establishments.

A search of hackhu.com/, a website that tracks DIRECTV's anti-fraud and anti-piracy enforcement actions, revealed eight complaints for this crime within the last year.

"If you decide to go to the dark side or Dark Angel, then you are taking a tremendous risk of suffering financial consequences," said Mercer. "It's important that consumers understand that stealing programming from cable or satellite is against federal law. You must have authorization to receive the signal."