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December 19, 2022Baltimore, MD, United StatesIntellectual Property Rights and Commercial Fraud

HSI Baltimore seizes another 23 websites that violated copyrights by illegally live streaming World Cup matches

HSI-led ‘Operation Offsides’ netted 78 seized domain names in 1 week for copyright violations

BALTIMORE – Special agents from Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Baltimore Field Office seized 23 separate internet domains Friday for allegedly live streaming World Cup matches, an infringement of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) copyrights. Individuals visiting the sites will now see a message that the site has been seized by the federal government and be redirected to another site for additional information.

The investigation into the illegal web streaming, titled “Operation Offsides” has resulted in a total of 78 website seizures; the latest round of 23 are in addition to 55 internet domains that HSI Baltimore seized Dec. 10.

“Operation Offsides, is a great example of how HSI partners with the private sector to ensure that their Intellectual Property is protected from online piracy,” said Special Agent in Charge James C. Harris III of HSI Baltimore. “With this latest round of website seizures, HSI Baltimore has seized a total of 78 domains in support of this operation. We will continue to monitor the online activities of streaming sites during future sporting events to thwart additional instances of violations of intellectual property laws.”

After HSI Baltimore conducted the initial round of seizures, HSI agents in Maryland observed public internet messages and social media posts identifying additional, alternative sites offering illicit streams of World Cup matches. The agents then reviewed World Cup matches and other infringing content being offered through these sites and confirmed a list of additional domain names subject to seizure.

The latest round of seizures came on the eve of the FIFA World Cup final and third place matches.

HSI Baltimore led the investigation into the illegal live streaming with significant assistance from the National Individual Property Rights (IPR) Center and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland.

“Consumers are harmed when accessing illegal content – one-third of pirate sites target consumers with malware that can lead to a range of problems, including identity theft and financial loss, according to a report by Digital Citizens Alliance,” said James R. Mancuso, the Director of the IPR Center. “Our partnership with FIFA provides critical new opportunities to assist law enforcement in their investigations of persons and criminal organizations involved in the illegal act of duplicating, copying, or sharing digital works without the legal permission of the copyright holders”

The investigation into the illegal streaming of FIFA matches began in September 2022, when HSI received information from a representative of FIFA identifying several sites being used to distribute copyright infringing content, specifically World Cup games, without FIFA’s authorization.

“HSI Baltimore will continue to focus on removing websites that facilitate digital piracy, and other intellectual property violations, from the internet,” said Harris. “While many may believe that such websites do not constitute serious threats, the infringement upon rights holders of any intellectual property is a growing threat to our economic viability. The impact can be felt across multiple industries, and it can be the conduit to other forms of criminal activity.”

HSI Baltimore agents reviewed numerous examples of infringing content accessible from each of the subject domain names. Each domain was associated with a website offering free access to copyrighted digital media content – specifically, live streamed sessions of World Cup soccer matches. HSI Baltimore’s seizure of those sites prevented unauthorized third parties from financially benefitting from the illegal broadcasts. Individuals visiting the sites will now see a message that the site has been seized by the federal government and be redirected to another site for additional information.

FIFA is the international governing body of association football (soccer) and holds the exclusive rights to sanction and stage the FIFA World Cup 2022, which is being hosted in multiple cities in Qatar.

Digital streaming services provide easy access to music, television, movies, and sports. However, the growth of digital streaming services has provided new avenues for criminals, while presenting contemporary challenges to law enforcement agencies tasked with ensuring copyright protection for the entertainment industry. This technology that has provided millions of people with on demand access has enabled criminals to turn piracy into a crime that is no longer restricted to the individual sale of illegally pirated media.

“The popularity of streaming internet services has presented the world of law enforcement with a new and changing criminal environment,” said Harris. “HSI has responded by evolving with the threat to protect legitimate online corporations from internet bandits who attempt to exploit the ever-changing online environment. In this case, HSI Baltimore was able to capitalize on our strong relationship with the National Intellectual Property Rights Center to take down these fraudulent websites.”

Free access to live sports related copyright-protected content can attract heavy viewing traffic, which makes websites offering such content a potentially lucrative way to serve advertisements. The subject domain names currently feature such advertising networks.

Based on the pervasive use of advertising on each site, the investigation alleges that the purpose for distributing the infringing content is the private financial gain to these websites’ operators. By seizing the subject domain names, the government prevents third parties from acquiring the name and using it to commit additional crimes, or from continuing to access the websites in their present forms.

HSI is the principal investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), responsible for investigating transnational crime and threats, specifically those criminal organizations that exploit the global infrastructure through which international trade, travel, and finance move. HSI’s workforce of over 10,400 employees consists of more than 6,800 special agents assigned to 225 cities throughout the United States, and 93 overseas locations in 56 countries. HSI’s international presence represents DHS’s largest investigative law enforcement presence abroad and one of the largest international footprints in U.S. law enforcement.