NCTA Investigators Target E-Mailer

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National Cable & Telecommunications Association piracy investigators believe they are just days away from locating the Internet-service provider which hosts a hardware supplier that advertises illegal digital-video descrambling devices.

The filters, offered via a professional-looking, graphics-rich e-mail message, can compromise digital set-tops, but only for a short time, according to Nilda Gumbs, assistant director of the NCTA's Office of Cable Signal Theft.

"We're concerned about it because it talks about digital technology and compromise," she said.

The e-mails began appearing about a month ago and gained the attention of investigators because they might be the first to claim to have broken digital encryption technology. Also, unlike the plethora of e-mails that tout analog pirate hardware, the communication from Digi-Vision Digital Cable Descrambler is studded with familiar, correctly spelled brand names.

The e-mail is linked to a Web site which boasts the device — a filter inserted between the cable and the set-top — will unscramble signals to 99 percent of digital set-tops in the field, including ones from Motorola Inc.; its predecessor, General Instrument Corp.; Pioneer New Media Technologies Inc.; and Scientific-Atlanta Inc.

Consumers who must call in pay-per-view orders can't use the filter, the Web site states.

Gumbs said NCTA investigators determined the filter shuts down the return path from the home to an operator's billing system, so a filter user can get unauthorized PPV movies and events — for a while.

Cable's digital technology works by communicating constantly with hardware in the home. If computers detect a lack of response from residential hardware, it would be "timed out," Gumbs said, necessitating a call to the operator to reauthorize the box.

Repeated calls would alert the cable operator to a problem, she said. Plus the box itself could aid in a prosecution.

Even if the transaction doesn't make it to the cable office, it is recorded in the set-top, she said.

Another anomaly of the e-mail is the price of the device: $199.

"The ad is new, but the filters themselves have been appearing on Ebay for a while for as little as $10," she said.

The NCTA contacted the online auction site to halt future postings for descramblers.

The trade association has "hit some walls" tracking the e-mail —with the return address freeppv2@optin-websites.com — back to the ISP from which it originated, she added. But the NCTA doesn't anticipate any problem with shutting down the Web site once it is located, she said.

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