Psst, I can get you that service for free

A junior tech learns the hard way that nothing is free that would normally be paid for, and that it's not right to abuse IT skills

Back in the early tech boom days, I worked with a guy we'll call James. A superior technician, he could repair almost any system in any state and was one to be bowed down to in any IT crisis -- like the ILoveYou Virus that took him only 3 hours to fix when many companies were down for days. I was a junior tech back then and certainly was in awe of his IT skills. However, I learned the hard way that there was another side to James.

When we weren't in the office, James and I were roving technicians for our company. We went from site to site across North America as our larger travel shop bought out smaller ones. Part of these visits would usually include termination of the current System Admin(s) and "removing" the System Admin laptops for "Security purposes," to which I was unaware eventually went home with James and up for sale on eBay. His mannerisms never gave any indication to the real purpose of removing the laptops and he gave no one any reason to question what was going on -- it was just part of the process.

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One of James' other "skills" is the one that bit me hard. At one point I decided to upgrade my home entertainment system from basic cable to satellite. I talked to James about it over lunch one day. He listened intently and then leaned in close and said, "Can I trust you?" To which I replied, "Yes." He said, "Let me drop by tonight and I'll hook you up on channels and PPV -- for free." We chatted a bit more about my innocence in the area of pirating satellite services and how it's almost expected that people hack the satellite provider so as to encourage better encryption. "It's all good," he said.

True to his word, James dropped by, whipped out his laptop and a smart card reader to which he plugged my satellite card into, ran a couple of commands, and placed my satellite card back in the receiver. He laughed as I scrolled through channels normally not accessible to one in my area, and then he showed me the golden ticket: PPV channels. James told me he took advantage of our Canadian travels and purchased items known at that time as gray area satellite decryption tools which were used legally (although controversially) in Canada to receive American channels that a Canadian could not normally subscribe to.

Of course I panicked for a second as reality hit and I was just sure that the "Satellite Cops" were on their way with the FBI to handcuff me as James snuck out the back door. Being the person I am, I would feel bad about taking the last donut at the office, now I'm stealing satellite channels? But James told me it was all good, and proceeded to tell me satellite signals are sent to everyone with the same information; some people pay to get all of it, others take it. Either way it's there and a person just needs to know what to do with it. So, I managed to convince myself, as long as I was getting the signal and had the tools to read it, everything was OK. As it turned out, it sounded good to many others at the office too.

In addition to hacking the cards the first time, James also repaired them. When the satellite company would send a countermeasure to disable all the hacked cards, I wasn't the only one in line at the office to see James. He would charge $20 per fix, per person, and he had about 20 active customers with about two to three cards each. He was a good businessman, offering discounts for multiple cards and even once comped a guy whose card went down twice in one week. When everyone started receiving new cards, James did it again, charging $50 for each card and $20 each future fix. All in all, I later figured out that James was pulling in an additional $10,000 a year easy.

The time went by and many hundreds of PPV events were watched before someone alerted the satellite company about James. I was caught and forked out $5,000 to them in a plea agreement after James ratted on me and everyone else. Trust me when I say that $5,000 was not worth the free channels and actually cost $3,500 more than the best package I could have subscribed to. James' capture netted about 40 people in my area, many of whom still worked with me at the travel agency. I was also banned for life from using the satellite service.

James was also caught with about four "missing" (more like unaccounted for) laptops from the office and field offices, a few misplaced servers, and one very large network printer that was an easy $5,000 off the shelf; sadly, these items we never really missed and with our IT budget may have never been missed, ever (it was the dot-com era with money a-plenty). Then they found his eBay account and that was then end for James, at least as an IT guy. And his eBay activity also triggered a review of my employment with the company. I spent a few weeks at a desk while people reviewed my personal e-mails, Web browser history, and rummaged through my house for any "missing items." (Funny how things show missing that weren't "missing" before ...) I was pretty squeaky clean but faced embarrassment at work and with my family, so much so that I moved on from that job about two months later and haven't really spoken to anyone from there in years.

For all of his crimes of service theft and equipment theft, James went to jail and served a good chunk of his sentence. I only know this as James got online not long after his release and tried to add me as a friend on Facebook; I declined for good measure.

So lessons learned: Nothing is for free that would normally be paid for, stealing is stealing even if no one gets hurt, and it's not right to abuse IT knowledge and skills by engaging in illegal activities no matter how good the reasoning.


Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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