DirecTV targets more than 1,000 satellite signal pirates

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

ST. LOUIS -- DirecTV Inc., the nation's largest satellite TV service, has filed a spate of lawsuits in Missouri, Kansas and Illinois as part of a national effort to fight against theft of its satellite signal.

"We are attacking up and down the entire food chain of the pirate community, from the demand side to the supply side," said Robert Mercer, a company spokesman. "We really have to adopt a take-no-prisoners kind of attitude on this activity. They are stealing."

DirectTV has filed about 740 cases in Illinois, 360 in Missouri and 90 in Kansas, Mercer said.

Unlike cable television, which requires a wire running from the street into a home or building, DirecTV delivers its television product via a satellite signal. A receiver inside the home is used to translate code gathered by an outside dish pointed toward satellites in orbit.

The wireless nature of the DirecTV service makes it relatively easy for 'pirates' armed with the right technology to steal the broadcast signal. And there are no cables to follow to track down those who might be stealing the signal.

So DirecTV Inc., based in El Segundo, Calif., has asked federal courts to authorize civil raids to collect incriminating information from companies that market illicit receiving gear, often over the Internet.

However, equipment that some use to steal satellite signals can also be used for legal purposes, said Fred von Lohmann, a lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a think tank devoted to protecting civil liberties in technology.

Some of the customers targeted with legal action say they've never stolen a signal.

"They're innocent, but in order to defend themselves, it will cost them more money than to just cough it up," von Lohmann said. "It has all the makings of a classic shakedown operation, at least from the perspective of those who are innocent."

DirecTV says its basic package of 130 channels costs $39.99 per month, but the average customer pays $59.10 to get premium movies and sports coverage. The company reported $6.4 billion in revenue last year.

With 11.4 million subscribers at the end of March, it was the nation's second-largest pay TV service, after cable TV giant Comcast Corp.

Charles Rogers, of Poplar Bluff, is being sued by DirecTV in federal court in St. Louis. But he said he's never stolen DirecTV signals. In fact, he said, he was a paying customer until he got a letter from the company demanding thousands of dollars. He called the demands "extortion."

Rogers is one Missouri resident to receive a letter from DirecTV, which have demand payments ranging from $3,500 to $15,000. If those remain unanswered, the company pursues legal action. In Rogers case, he did not respond in court and DirecTV won a default judgment against him on June 9.

Larry Rissler, the chief of the company's signal integrity unit, said the company has acted cautiously.

"We feel very confident that the letters we're sending out target individuals who stole our programming," he said.

Two years ago, the company also received court permission to conduct civil raids on businesses it claimed were making unauthorized access cards used in receivers to steal DirecTV signals. So far, DirecTV has conducted 35 raids and sent more than 100,000 letters to equipment buyers nationwide, Mercer said.

"A lot of them have responded to our demands and settled," he said. The company says it has sued about 8,700 who did not respond.

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