BANGOR – Pirates of the airwaves, beware.
The nation’s largest satellite television service is willing to do almost anything – including suing its subscribers in federal court – to fight against the theft of its signal.
DirecTV Inc. has sued 18,000 people in the past year, including seven in U.S. District Court in Bangor and four in federal court in Portland.
“We are attacking up and down the entire food chain of the pirate community, from the demand side to the supply side,” Robert Mercer, director of public relations for the California-based firm, has said. “There’s no pattern to it. Pirates come in all shapes, sizes and geographic locations. They all have one thing in common – they’re all guilty of theft.”
The company obtains the names and addresses of people who have purchased pirating devices through financial records seized from law enforcement raids on the manufacturers and distributors of satellite pirating devices.
Some of the devices are designed to capture DirecTV’s signal without paying subscriber fees; others are used by subscribers to pirate services such as pay-per-view. All were ordered over the Internet.
The latest round of lawsuits filed in Bangor stemmed from a raid on the California-based Computer Shanty two years ago. Four Maine residents – living in Calais, Brownville, Newcastle and Bangor – were served notice of the lawsuits this month.
Suits against two Aroostook County residents and one in Washington County were dismissed earlier this year, after settlements apparently were reached. The names and addresses of the defendants were found in the records of a different distributor, according to court documents.
Mercer said earlier this month that DirecTV first sends a series of “demand letters” asking people to surrender pirating devices, sign written agreements not to use pirating devices again, and pay a monetary fee for the services the satellite TV company estimates were stolen.
That fee starts around $3,500 and can go higher, depending on the number of devices purchased, said Mercer.
“Once we go to court, people are looking at $10,000 per device plus attorney’s fees,” he said. “People are well-advised to settle upfront. Stealing a satellite TV signal is illegal. You can get caught and there are serious consequences.”
Ignoring the demand letters may lead to a federal lawsuit, but ignoring the lawsuit is far more serious, if a recent case is any indication. DirecTV is asking a federal judge to enter a judgment for more than $140,000 against a Freeport man who has not responded to a lawsuit filed in May.
In the latest spate of suits filed in Bangor, just one man has replied so far.
In a letter dated Dec. 7, the 73-year-old Bangor man admitted that he purchased the device and that it arrived without directions but with a warning. He stated that he threw the device into the trash without ever using it.
The man stated that he had informed the company that he had never used the device when the first demand letter arrived in the mail. He also informed the court that he is seeking a jury trial.
If the Bangor man’s case is deliberated by a jury, it might be the first in the country to get that far. According to Mercer, as of mid-December, none of the 18,000 lawsuits filed throughout the country has gone to trial.
From his office in El Segundo, Calif., Mercer used an analogy for the theft of satellite television signals he thought might ring true for Mainers.
“It’s kind of like moose hunting on Sunday from a pickup truck without a license,” he said.