A multiagency task force formed to chase California
computer crime has helped cable operators in their fight against piracy.
With the muscle of the group, Comcast Corp.'s
Sacramento system was able to chase a lead into Nevada and shut down a distribution
business there, said Bill Bowyer, the system's security director.
The participation of the Sacramento Valley High-Tech Crimes
Task Force -- made up of agencies such as the FBI, the California Highway Patrol (CHiP)
and local police -- joined with a similar coalition in Nevada to investigate PC
Electronics of Reno, Nev.
The saga started when fliers began showing up in Sacramento
apartments, urging maintenance managers to sell abandoned cable set-tops for a profit.
Bowyer posed as an apartment employee, selling a few
converters to a man that he reached via the phone number on the fliers. Eventually, he
sold the man new converters, in their original cases, to strengthen the case for receiving
Bowyer presented his case to the task force, which helped
him to tail his suspect to the San Francisco Bay area. That's where the CHiP came in:
Law-enforcement members on the task force asked the highway officers to pull the suspect
over on some pretext so that they could run his license plate as the box buyer left the
jurisdiction and headed for San Francisco. The suspect was arrested after Bowyer made one
more delivery to him to seal the case.
Faced with the evidence against him, the man agreed to lead
authorities to his buyer, even though authorities offered him no immunity. The task force
equipped him with a set-top packaged in a box with a false bottom containing a tracking
and listening device. This turned out to be a fortuitous tactic because the distributor,
the principal of PC Electronics, had moved the evidence of converter sales out of his
business and into his home after reading a story in the Sacramento Bee warning that
California operators were cracking down on theft.
The task force seized 11,000 sales records, indicating that
the distributor made $360,000 in sales of set-tops allegedly purloined from Comcast,
Tele-Communications Inc. and other operators in the two months prior to the bust.
Alarmingly, new technology was discovered -- a
state-of-the-art, surface-mount chip board that was so neatly constructed that one might
need a microscope to see all of the chips on it, and a wand that fully activates old
Jerrold Communications technology, Bowyer said. No evidence of digital-piracy tools was
"We're really looking for that stuff," he
Bowyer said he hopes that such computer-theft operations
are a trend of the future throughout the country. The one in California quickly recognized
that "we use chips, too," Bowyer said.
He added that he intends to approach the National Cable
Television Association or premium networks to help the California group to fund a task
force that will be dedicated to cable-computer crimes.