Netting Neuromancers in Your Neighborhood

In a case we'll probably see more of, police in Fairfax, Va., cracked a cyberjockey ring led by a PC hacker who illegally redistributed cable service

Police in Fairfax County, Va., have got a new beat -- the mean streets of the infobahn.

The quiet Washington, D.C., suburb doesn't seem a likely place for keyboard crime, but local law enforcement officials recently got a crash course in computer hacking and cable fraud.

Late last month, the Fairfax County Police Department broke up a local crime ring responsible for stealing and modifying cable set-top boxes to siphon video signals from Media General Cable of Fairfax, Va., and other local operators.

The operation sold the tampered boxes for $300 each to thousands of Washington, D.C., area residents eager to side-step pricey cable programming, which comes close in some areas to $50 a month.

Police say David Borden of Falls Church, Va., did more than just cut a few wires. Borden hacked into Media General's computer from his own PC, stole address codes, then reprogrammed chips to make the hot-boxes work, say Media General officials.

That's a lot more sophisticated than the odd convenience store heist local police are used to.

"This is new for everybody," said Detective Michael Kerns, who is leading the investigation. "It's the first cable fraud and computer trespass case that our courts have seen."

To help crack the case, Kerns called in the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Secret Service for advice. Both agencies offered technical help on the computer- crime portion of the effort.

Media General became aware of the problem during a routine warehouse inventory when Zenith set-top boxes were found missing.

A tip from a Media General customer put police onto Borden's operation.

Several company employees and former subcontractors have been arrested in connection with the thefts and are awaiting trial.

Media General depends heavily on customers for such help.

"A lot of people don't like others getting a better deal than they are," said Craig Snedeker, sales, marketing and security manager. Snedeker estimates Media General is losing as much as $1 million a year to bogus boxes.

Jim Allen of the National Cable Television Association office of cable signal theft said the ring's damage was sizeable for Northern Virginia, but not unprecedented nationwide.

The cable industry loses as estimated $4.7 billion to cable fraud every year, according to association figures.

The buyers who thought they were getting a sure deal are not anonymous. Media General has a list identifying many of the signal stealers, but doesn't want to prosecute.

Instead, the company is planning an amnesty campaign and will offer to trade the bad boxes for good ones with no questions asked.

"We don't want to have to take our subscribers to court," said Snedeker. Media General is content to just get the boxes out of circulation.

Cable fraud is a felony and penalties are considerable. Fines can top $2,500 plus one to five years jail time.

"[Users] can receive the same punishment as the guy who made the boxes," said Kerns.

The detective predicts he'll see more cyber-crime soon.

"Computer hacking on a local level is something we're just getting involved in but we know its going to be a continuing problem," Kerns said.

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