In a scene worthy of any caper flick, the FBI called it a wrap Wednesday in its investigation of an illegal movie camcording scam based out of New York City.
In raids across the city, the FBI arrested 13 persons as part of indictments naming a total of 22 individuals who used digital camcorders to illegally make copies of hit movies that were eventually distributed over the Internet.
According to Michael J. Garcia, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, the criminal ring is “responsible for the creation and distribution of millions of counterfeit copies of motion pictures in circulation around the world.”
The 22 are charged with conspiring to traffic in counterfeit motion pictures. If convicted each face up to five years in prison on various individual charges of conspiracy, copyright infringement and trafficking in counterfeit goods.
In a standard no-honor-among-thieves plot line, the conspiracy fell apart over three years as first one, then another camcorder turned on each other and offered up evidence to the FBI.
Before it was over, the FBI opened a storefront black market movie operation to deal with the piracy ring, operated an Internet site for the thieves to upload their illegal wares and wired numerous eventual defendants in their conversations with other defendants.
As might be expected, they readily sold each out.
One conversation took place in 2003 at New York’s Katz Deli where the FBI had brought in an undercover agent from California to discuss various aspects of the counterfeit movie business with one of the individuals indicted Wednesday.
“I send [stuff] to China on a weekly basis,” Hector Vazquez told the undercover agent. “You’re working with [stuff] that’s illegal.”
The FBI’s informant then sold several movies to Vazquez for $2,000. Vazquez then uploaded the counterfeit copies to the Internet site provided by the FBI, purportedly for distribution.
Instead, the FBI downloaded the movies for evidence against Vasquez.
The films uploaded to the FBI site included Cheaper by the Dozen, The Last Samurai, The Big Bounce and The Passion of Christ.
The investigation began in 2003, after the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) contacted the FBI about a counterfeit version of “The Matrix” circulating on the Internet. According to the MPAA, the knockoff was recorded at a New York theater.
According to court documents, the operation was divided into three groups: camcorders, or “cammers,” who recorded the movies; wholesalers who bought the cammers’ work for as much as $600 a film; and printers, who created the wrappings and sleeves that went into producing the DVD or video cassette packaging.
“I ultimately learned that numerous individuals in New York, New York, were, collectively, responsible for millions of counterfeit copies of motion pictures in circulation around the world,” one undercover FBI agent stated in the court documents.
“I further discovered that the New York counterfeiters had been working in concert with scores of individuals located in cities throughout the United States to distribute and sell the counterfeit movies.
The agent also said the New York ring was working with others overseas, particularly in Pakistan and Singapore, to distribute the counterfeit movies internationally over the Internet.