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DOJ Dismantles Sparks Online Piracy Group

August 26, 2020

The Sparks Group is Alleged to Have Caused Tens of Millions of Dollars in Losses to Film Production Studios

Indictments has been unsealed charging UMAR AHMAD a/k/a “Artist,” GEORGE BRIDI, and JONATAN CORREA, a/k/a “Raid,” with copyright infringement, and as to BRIDI, wire fraud, for their involvement in the Sparks Group, an international piracy group involved in illegally distributing movies and television shows on the Internet. BRIDI, a citizen of the United Kingdom, was arrested on Sunday in Cyprus on an INTERPOL Red Notice based on the U.S. criminal charges. The United States will seek BRIDI’s extradition to stand trial in the United States. CORREA was arrested yesterday in Olathe, Kansas, where he will be presented in federal court. AHMAD, a citizen of Norway, remains at large. The case is assigned to United States District Judge Richard M. Berman.

In coordination with law enforcement authorities in 18 other countries and supported by Eurojust and Europol, dozens of servers controlled by the Sparks Group were taken offline today around the world, including in North America, Europe, and Asia. The Sparks Group utilized these servers to illegally store and disseminate copyrighted content to members around the globe.

Acting U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said: “As alleged, the defendants were members of an international video piracy ring that was sophisticated and widespread. The group allegedly circumvented copyright protections on nearly every movie released by major production studios, as well as television shows, and distributed them by way of a worldwide network of servers. Thanks to the efforts of HSI, the Postal Inspection Service, Eurojust, Europol, and our law enforcement partners in 18 countries on three continents, key members of this group are in custody, and the servers that were the pipeline for wholesale theft of intellectual property are now out of service.”

HSI Special Agent-in-Charge Fitzhugh said: “As alleged, Sparks Group members reproduced and disseminated hundreds of movies and television shows prior to their retail release date, including nearly every movie released by major production studios, causing millions of dollars in losses to the film and television industry. This investigation shows – in high definition – that despite the online platform and international nature of this scheme, we are committed to stop those who use the cyber world for illicit gain. HSI New York’s El Dorado Task Force, in collaboration with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, leveraged their global network of law enforcement partners to shut down this criminal organization’s cyber piracy network and arrest those allegedly responsible.”

USPIS Inspector-in-Charge Philip R. Bartlett said: “Copyright criminals have come a long way from bootlegging movies in local theaters and selling inferior quality videos and DVD’s on the streets of New York City for $5.00. The movies and TV shows allegedly stolen by these defendants not only represent a body of work ripped off from those who spent years developing their craft and working their way to stardom, but deprives the studios and actors of the fruits of their labor.”

Ladislav Hamran, President of Eurojust, said: “This case is an excellent example of what can be achieved if we work together across borders and continents. Thanks to the long-standing partnership between the U.S. and the European authorities, we managed to deal a significant blow to online piracy. My sincere congratulations go out to all countries involved in yesterday’s joint action day.”

According to the allegations contained in the Indictments[[1]] unsealed yesterday in Manhattan federal court:

Between 2011 and the present, UMAR AHMAD a/k/a “Artist,” GEORGE BRIDI, JONATAN CORREA, a/k/a “Raid,” and others known and unknown were members of the Sparks Group, a criminal organization that disseminated on the Internet movies and television shows prior to their retail release date, including nearly every movie released by major production studios, after compromising the content’s copyright protections.

In furtherance of its scheme, the Sparks Group fraudulently obtained copyrighted DVDs and Blu-Ray discs from wholesale distributors in advance of their retail release date by, among other things, making various misrepresentations to the wholesale distributors concerning the reasons that they were obtaining the discs prior to the retail release date.

Sparks Group members then used computers with specialized software to compromise the copyright protections on the discs, a process referred to as “cracking” or “ripping,” and to reproduce and encode the content in a format that could be easily copied and disseminated over the Internet. They thereafter uploaded copies of the copyrighted content onto servers controlled by the Sparks Group, where other members further reproduced and disseminated the content on streaming websites, peer-to-peer networks, torrent networks, and other servers accessible to the public. The Sparks Group identified its reproductions by encoding the filenames of reproduced copyrighted content with distinctive tags, and also uploaded photographs of the discs in their original packaging to demonstrate that the reproduced content originated from authentic DVDs and Blu-Ray discs.

AHMAD and BRIDI arranged for discs to be picked up, mailed, or delivered from distributors located in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and New Jersey to other members of the Sparks Group, including CORREA, prior to their official release date. AHMAD, BRIDI, and CORREA then reproduced, and aided and abetted the reproduction of, these discs by using computer software that circumvented copyright protections on the discs and reproducing the copyrighted content for further distribution on the Internet.

The Sparks Group has caused tens of millions of dollars in losses to film production studios.

* * *

AHMAD, 39, BRIDI, 50, and CORREA, 36, are each charged with copyright infringement conspiracy, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. BRIDI is also charged with wire fraud conspiracy, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, and conspiracy to transport stolen property interstate, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

The maximum potential sentences in this case are prescribed by Congress and are provided here for informational purposes only, as any sentencing of the defendants will be determined by the judge.

Ms. Strauss praised the outstanding work of HSI and USPIS. She also thanked Europol and Eurojust as well as law enforcement authorities in the following countries for their assistance in the investigation: Canada, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Republic of Korea, Latvia, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

The case is being prosecuted by the Office’s Violent and Organized Crime Unit. Assistant United States Attorneys Andrew K. Chan, Mollie Bracewell, and Christy Slavik are in charge of the prosecution. The U.S. Department Justice’s Office of International Affairs (OIA) of the Department’s Criminal Division provided significant and ongoing assistance with facilitating the execution of dozens of mutual legal assistance requests in 18 different countries necessary for taking down servers and gathering evidence. OIA also provided critical support in working with Eurojust and Europol in planning the coordinated operation yesterday.

The charges contained in the Indictments are merely accusations, and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.

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