Three men jailed over set-top box fraud

Three men who took part in a massive fraud by selling set-top boxes which allowed people unlawful free access to Virgin Media's cable television channels have been jailed for a total of 15 years.

The men manufactured, imported and supplied more than 400,000 set-top boxes across the UK during a three-and-a-half-year operation, a jury at Snaresbrook Crown Court was told.

The scam, described as the largest commercial fraud to have been prosecuted in the UK, is thought to have cost Virgin Media some £144 million a year.

The set-top boxes were sold between January 2005 and November 2008 to suppliers and dealers across the UK and Northern Ireland.

Although it was unlawful to use the boxes, consumers were tricked into spending hundreds of pounds on the devices because they gave access to Virgin Media's cable television services without subscription.

A Virgin Media spokesman said the company's counter-measures regularly disabled unofficial boxes while the roll-out of new encryption technology across the cable network meant that all such set-top boxes were now useless.

Virgin Media launched a private prosecution following a large-scale joint operation with the Metropolitan Police at Redbridge, Essex, and New Scotland Yard.

The investigation started in November 2008, when officers raided the homes of five suspects, a commercial premises and a storage facility.

All five defendants were arrested immediately with approximately 5,000 illegal set-top boxes and £90,000 in cash seized, representing one of the largest hauls of its type seen by the Metropolitan Police.

Virgin Media head of fraud and security Malcolm Davies said: "Virgin Media's dedicated security team has worked closely with police forces and forensic teams throughout the UK to identify the people behind this crime and bring them to justice.

"This case demonstrates that the courts take this type of commercial fraud very seriously and that they will act strongly.

"This sentence should also act as a serious warning to members of the public to steer clear of selling or purchasing illegal TV or broadband equipment.

"Purchasing unlawful equipment such as this only serves to fund organised crime and we will continue to investigate and prosecute individuals and groups connected with this type of fraud to the full extent of the law."

Metropolitan Police Sergeant Colin Smith said: "This has been an extremely successful operation which has seen the sentencing of the instigators of one of the biggest commercial frauds to be implemented in the UK.

"I would also like to urge the public to be aware that using set-top boxes that have been illegally modified to receive digital TV subscription channels for free is committing a serious criminal offence. Anyone receiving channels that should be paid for is at risk of being prosecuted."

Munaf Ahmed Zinga, 40, from Plaistow, Essex, who traded the Eurovox branded set-top boxes through his business Rayyonics Ltd, got an eight-year sentence. His assistant, Mukandun Pillai, 39, from Hainault, was jailed for six years.

The jury convicted them of conspiracy to defraud.

The third man, Salim Patel, from Plaistow, was jailed for 12 months. He had earlier pleaded guilty to his part in the conspiracy by working as a delivery driver for the company, transporting the set-top boxes to suppliers and collecting cash in return.

Judge Inigo Bing said when he sentenced the men last week: "The concept was to provide members of the public with access to television services for which they would normally be required to pay.

"As the full programme of TV services can be expensive, the defendants' product had great appeal to those members of the public who had less than exemplary scruples. The potential market for free TV was enormous."

The "simple" concept required a combination of business acumen, provided by Zinga, and technical know-how, provided by Pillai, he said, adding: "Virgin's security systems were robust and difficult to get around and overcoming them would have required considerable know-how. Emulating a genuine Virgin box was difficult and therefore it required you to commission the manufacture of the box in Korea.

"Software was needed for a box to be programmed or flashed. It wasn't easy. Such software is highly illegal."

The fake set-top boxes were marked as satellite units to avoid detection by customs.

Virgin Media, which brought the private prosecutions, was represented by a team from media law firm Wiggin led by solicitor Neil Parkes, who instructed specialist counsel David Groome and Ari Alibhai.