Jackin' the Box

Cable Descramblers—Are They Legal?

Q: I've always just assumed that cable descramblers are as illegal as tapping into your neighbor's service. So what's with all these pop-ups and spams hawking "completely legal" descramblers? Man, I sure could use me some free Animal Planet!

Sorry to squelch your dreams of gratis episodes of Emergency Vets, but the fine print's a bitch on those ostensibly legal descramblers. The dealers try and dodge the law by including disclaimers to the effect of "If you're gonna use our product, be sure to pay for whatever channels you get." All their gizmos save you, so the shtick goes, is the nominal rental fee for your cable box. Of course, everyone knows this disclaimer is about as genuine as a head shop's assertion that its skull-shaped "aqueous smoking items" are for tobacco only. The cable industry certainly knows the score, and has had some success in shutting down vendors—as well as harassing clients, which is just one of the risks you take when purchasing a descrambler online.

Let's handle the technological problems first, shall we? Hunt all you want for a device that descramble a digital signal, but you'll have no joy—they don't yet exist. Which means you'd have to arrange for an analog signal to be sent to your home. That's either not possible—analog cable's going the way of the dodo—or a surefire tip-off to the cable cops that you're up to no good. Depending on where you live, your provider may also be employing the latest in electronic countermeasures to thwart descramblers. Down in Maryland, for example, Comcast re-scrambles its signals every half-hour, forcing black-box owners to manually adjust their contraptions.

As might be expected of an industry that relies on spam to get the word out, quality of the boxes varies from mediocre to atrocious. The Federal Trade Commission ranks the build-it-yourself descrambler as one of the dozen most common online scams, right up there with "Work at Home!" and "Silagra, Just as Good as Viagra!" You're promised endless nights of free Xena reruns, but end up with a carton full of 50-cent circuit boards and an instructional manual in pidgin English. Full refund? In you dreams, chump.

Even if your descrambler arrives in fine working order, and you're able to snag all the channels your heart desires, there's still the off-chance that you'll get a legal smackdown eventually. Courts have been receptive to cable company arguments that the "Don't steal cable" disclaimers of black-box vendors are pretty much worthless, and that intent is what really matters. Last fall, AT&T successfully sued a Virginia Beach man for selling descramblers on eBay, despite the fact that his ads touted only the savings on rental fees.

Other vendors have been nabbed in sting operations, like a pair of SUNY Stony Brook students who were caught in February 2002 with 200 Korean-made descramblers. Woe to them, but also to any clients mentioned in their files—cable providers aren't shy about going after customers for restitution.

Mr. Roboto doesn't mean to come off sounding like a corporate lackey, especially for an industry whose anti-fraud efforts reek of Soviet police tactics. There's something mighty fishy about their claims of losing over $5 billion a year, not to mention the creepy vibe of the "Report Theft" e-form at CableTheft.com.

But the feeling here is that it's best to steer clear of Internet come-ons for descramblers. The boxes don't always work, and you could wind up getting dragged through legal hell by a deep-pocketed corporation. Take solace in knowing you're not missing all that much on Animal Planet; aside from the splendid Judge Wapner's Animal Court, it's a dud.


When Mr. Roboto first heard the island nation of Palau had joined the Bush administration's "coalition of the willing," the obvious reaction was "Huh?" Thanks, then, to Visit-Palau.com for shedding some light on our ally. Seems like a gorgeous place, though not exactly a world-beater in terms of technology. According to the latest CIA Factbook entry on the island paradise (still available at CIA.gov, at least until Patriot Act III gets conjured up), the country makes do with a single Internet service provider. Perhaps a second one was part of the president's carrot.


Input questions at bkoerner@villagevoice.com.

 
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