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  1. One of the alleged key members of piracy group SPARKS has pleaded not guilty to US Government charges that he was involved in a conspiracy that cost movie companies tens of millions of dollars. Jonatan Correa, aka 'Raid', has been granted bail on a $75,000 bond with a number of conditions attached. On August 25, unofficial reports began to circulate that something big was underway in the top-tier piracy world known as The Scene. So-called topsites, the servers where masses of copyright-infringing content are stored, began shutting down globally as it became clear that law enforcement action was underway. Within hours, the US Department of Justice announced that three key members of the piracy groups known as SPARKS, GECKOS, DRONES and SPLiNTERS had been indicted, charged with a range of offenses connected to movie and TV show piracy. As reports of wider arrests filtered in from law enforcement entities in Europe, the status of the indicted trio was clarified in the United States. George Bridi, 50, a citizen of Great Britain, had been detained in Cyprus on an INTERPOL Red Notice. Norway resident Umar Ahmad (aka ‘Artist’), 39, was still at large. Jonatan Correa (aka ‘Raid’), 36, had been arrested on US soil in Olathe, Kansas, and placed into custody. Jonatan Correa (aka ‘Raid’) The USDOJ alleges that Correa was involved in the ‘Sparks Conspiracy’ (the collective name for the prosecution) from around January 2011 through to August 2020. This differs from the charges against Bridi and Ahmad, whose ‘conspiracy’ charges run from January 2011 to January 2020. The reasons for this remain unclear. All three are charged with causing “tens of millions of dollars” in losses to film production studios. According to a superseding indictment, Correa and the others fraudulently obtained copies of discs containing movies and TV shows in advance of their official release dates. It is further claimed that Correa remotely accessed a computer belonging to a co-conspirator in Westchester County in order to “illegally record and reproduce” copyrighted TV shows. At this stage, the identity of this alleged co-conspirator is being kept under wraps by the authorities. While Correa’s co-defendants face additional charges including wire fraud and transporting stolen property, Correa faces a single charge of conspiracy to commit criminal copyright infringement. Correa Arrested, Quickly Released, Pleads Not Guilty After being arrested in Kansas on August 25 at 07:00, court records reveal that Correa was presented before the Kansas district court on August 26 and released the very same day. Other documents that might offer additional information persistently return a “not found” error on records portal PACER, while access to others is simply denied. However, additional detail is available relating to Correa’s status and plea. Records indicate that Correa was released on bail with a $75,000 bond, secured by cash or property. His release comes with pre-trial supervision conditions, including that he must surrender all travel documents and submit to a ban on all new travel document applications. In addition, Correa has agreed to participate in a drug testing and treatment program and is forbidden from possessing firearms, other weapons, or any “destructive devices”. He is further ordered to abstain from contact with co-defendants and witnesses, with conditions. “Defendant shall have no contact with any co-defendant, witnesses known to Defendant, or any other members of the Sparks Group without the presence of counsel,” a bail document reads, adding that Correa must not engage in any of the conduct alleged in his charging document either. Perhaps most importantly of all, exactly one week ago on September 1, 2020, Correa appeared remotely before United States Magistrate Judge James L. Cott and was arraigned on the superseding indictment. Correa pleaded not guilty to the charges against him. Whether that position will change later down the line remains to be seen but right now, his alleged co-conspirators don’t yet appear to be in US custody. Alleged Co-Conspirators Bridi and Ahmad According to the most recent official information, Ahmad (Artist) is reportedly still at large, perhaps in Norway, while Bridi is located some 5,500 miles away from New York on the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea. Since the unsealing of his indictment and from the filings made available to date, Ahmad hasn’t been mentioned in court documents. In respect of Bridi, however, the US Government has requested and obtained multiple certified copies of his indictment and arrest warrant for the “purposes of extraditing the defendant to the United States.” When that will take place is unknown but at least as far as Correa’s cases is concerned, Acting United States Attorney Audrey Strauss told the court last week that the parties are currently in discussion over discovery and a pre-trial disposition. A conference has been set for October 26, 2020, for these discussions to continue. As previously reported, the action against SPARKS has negatively affect pirated releases from The Scene, with a steep decline observed in volumes of content being made available. Source documents here (1,2,3) Source: TorrentFreak
  2. The raids and arrests this week targeting piracy release group SPARKS have caused chaos in The Scene, with members and groups going into hiding and new releases dropping like a stone. The targeting of just one group shouldn't have such a massive effect but it seems probable that in the weeks and months to come, we'll learn that one weak spot can be exploited to undermine a much larger infrastructure. This Tuesday, TorrentFreak received more rapid-fire anonymous tips than we have done in recent memory. Demanding confidentiality is nothing new but tipsters and sources using anonymous mailers, obscured IP addresses, alongside repeat requests that identities aren’t revealed, usually point to something particularly unusual. And indeed, something unusual was definitely underway. Late Tuesday, documents filed under seal in the United States as early as January 2020 were suddenly unsealed, revealing one of the most important piracy-related cases of the past decade. As detailed in our report yesterday, a case brought by the US Government resulted in a Grand Jury charging at least three members of several and related top-tier ‘Scene’ release groups – SPARKS, GECKOS, DRONES, ROVERS and SPLiNTERS – with conspiracy to commit criminal copyright infringement and other crimes. The US case has been ongoing for many months and the investigation certainly longer. Exactly how long was unknown until yesterday when a Swedish prosecutor revealed that it had been underway “for years”. However, What took us by surprise was the volume of reports on Tuesday, the claims of panic and fear in ‘The Scene’ globally, and what now appears to be a significant reduction of releases of all kinds from what is usually a prolific and cascading ‘Piracy Pyramid’ system. Initial Information Proved Correct People closely involved in The Scene are naturally secretive, or at least that’s the mandate. The truth is that some are prepared to talk but everyone is so scared of being caught by the authorities or labeled by fellow members as insecure, that truly verifiable sources are extremely hard to come by. As a result, reporting the finer details becomes a product of overlapping independent sources, none of whom want to be identified, which isn’t ideal. Nevertheless, during Tuesday we were told by multiple sources that topsites and warez-affiliated members and resources were being targeted by law enforcement, anti-piracy groups, or a combination of both in many regions. What they all had in common was that the entities were affiliated with SPARKS and various topsites. Another recurring theme was the focus on Nordic countries as being at the heart of action. Many countries were mentioned, including the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Poland but, again and again, the reports cited both Norway and Sweden as potentially the main ‘problem’ areas. US Department of Justice Began Talking Yesterday In an official announcement Wednesday, following the initial yet unofficial reports of raids 24 hours earlier and after the unsealing of the indictments, the USDOJ revealed the global scale of the operation against SPARKS and its affiliates. “Thanks to the efforts of HSI, the Postal Inspection Service, Eurojust, Europol, and our law enforcement partners in 18 countries on three continents, key members of this group are in custody, and the servers that were the pipeline for wholesale theft of intellectual property are now out of service,” the announcement read. The US revealed that law enforcement authorities in many countries assisted in the investigation against SPARKS including those in Canada, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Republic of Korea, Latvia, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. SPARKS member George Bridi, 50, was reportedly arrested on Sunday in Cyprus on an INTERPOL Red Notice. Correa (aka ‘Raid’), 36, was arrested Tuesday in Olathe, Kansas, where he will appear in federal court. Umar Ahmad (aka ‘Artist’), 39, was not arrested and as of Wednesday was reportedly still at large, according to the US Government. The Nordic Connection Several pieces of information received by TF during Tuesday indeed placed someone known as ‘Artist’ as a central and important figure in the action taking place. Umar Ahmad is now officially named as that key person but according to his indictment, the US Government is not seeking to prosecute him for SPARKS-related offenses beyond January 2020. That’s also the case for George Bridi, an indicted co-defendant whose alias is currently unknown. The only SPARKS defendant charged with offenses up to August 2020 is Jonatan Correa, aka ‘Raid’. While there is room for speculation as to what may have happened here, it seems somewhat reasonable to conclude (at least given the charges) that Ahmad and Bridi stopped their alleged offending months ago. However, according to records kept by Scene-watching sites (known as pre-databases), SPARKS-related groups continued releasing content online until fairly recently. That aside, what we can confirm today is that Norway’s National Criminal Investigation Service, commonly known as Kripos, carried out raids at several premises this week and seized computer equipment on what is being described as a “large scale”. In addition, three men – who are yet to be named but are in their 30s and 40s – were arrested and charged for breaches of Norway’s Copyright Act. It is not currently known whether 39-year-old Oslo-resident Umar Ahmad is among them. Danish authorities have also confirmed that four men, aged between 35 and 48, had their homes searched and were subsequently charged with copyright infringement offenses. Servers and other pieces of IT equipment were seized. Source: Some Warning Signs Were Spotted a While Ago It’s certainly possible that SPARKS members were absolutely oblivious to the US Government’s investigation but according to one difficult-to-verify source, who insisted on anonymity but spoke with us at length and in considerable detail, this year and “before COVID”, some Scene members were questioning why a particular SPARKS member had suddenly “retired”. We are not publishing that member’s name here (which we believe was provided to us in advance of the unsealing of the US indictment) but according to the same source, another possibly-connected mystery was still lingering. The source alleges that some months earlier an individual connected to a separate yet prominent release group also “went afk” and suddenly stopped providing content. Again, we aren’t publishing the name of that group or the nickname of the person involved but we can confirm that the alleged group stopped releasing several months before the end of 2019. This led to rumors that one or both may have been compromised and hadn’t just taken a break. The relevance is that, according to the same insider, the pair (coincidentally or not) are believed to have shared the same content sources. Again, this is unconfirmed information but the first group has never returned to action and the second has the US Government on the attack after uncovering where it was obtaining its DVD and Blu-Ray discs from. Significant Legal Action in Sweden After receiving initial information, which was later confirmed by the USDOJ, that significant action had taken place in Sweden. On Tuesday, we spoke with Jon Karlung, the owner of ISP Bahnhof, which we were informed may have been visited by the authorities investigating SPARKS. That turned out not to be the case. Karlung told us that nobody had visited the company nor requested information. However, he said that with 400,000 households and 10,000 companies as clients, plus the company’s sale of bandwidth capacity to other ISPs, he couldn’t rule out that someone way down the chain, even a client of someone else, may have been visited. Whether connected to this specific ISP or not, multiple sources informed us that at least one topsite affiliated with multiple groups utilized a high-bandwidth home link in Sweden, with another topsite connected to multiple groups also seized in the country. What we know from official sources is that there were 14 house searches carried out in Sweden on Tuesday, including in Umeå, Malmö, Gothenburg and Stockholm. No one was arrested during the raids but according to prosecutor Johanna Kolga, more servers were seized in Sweden than anywhere else. Netherlands Action and the Existence of MLATs Finding information about what happened in the Netherlands led us to Tim Kuik of anti-piracy group BREIN. We put it to him that if anyone in the country knows anything about the case, it must be him. Like most other people, Kuik wasn’t budging on detail. But he did offer a plausible explanation for the silence. “It is an interesting case indeed. It is entirely possible for so-called MLATs to be carried out on the request of say US law enforcement and the Dutch authorities carrying it out without informing any private stakeholders,” Kuik told us. “In such cases it may be so that stakeholders abroad, who may have filed a criminal complaint for example, have been made aware and would not be at liberty to say anything about it. So nobody is likely to comment I think. But you can always try. I have no comment.” Later, however, Eurojust – the European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation – confirmed that it “helped transmit and facilitate the execution of over 30 Mutual Legal Assistance requests and Letters of Request necessary for taking down the servers and executing searches..” In all, over 60 servers were taken down in North America, Europe and Asia and “several main suspects” were arrested, the agency added. Interesting Allegations, Few New Releases, and Kevin Bacon Over the past 48+ hours, TF has been provided with a list of topsites and related infrastructure that has either been raided or taken down as a precautionary measure. The dozen-plus platforms will therefore remain unnamed, as we simply cannot determine which of the platforms are offline voluntarily, or down because they have been seized. This leads us to why so many sites and other key pieces of infrastructure have disappeared, apparently just because one group was targeted. The reasons, we are told, are complex but can be boiled down to the number of connections SPARKS had in The Scene. One recurring theme is that one of SPARKS’ members is claimed to have become quite influential and as a result may have “extended his tentacles too far”, as one source framed it. These connections, with many other groups and activities, may go some way to explaining why The Scene all but shut down Tuesday. If we take Bacon’s Law and apply it here, the response makes complete sense. Nevertheless, the scale of the shutdown is unusual, to say the least, and only time will tell if The Scene will fully recover. For the average torrent or streaming site user, a period of reduced new content availability might be on the horizon but history shows us that rarely lasts for long and that the cycle will probably begin again, once people have figured out who they can trust. Source: TorrentFreak
  3. The top-tier piracy world known as The Scene is in turmoil after the unsealing of US indictments targeting key members of release group SPARKS and several linked affiliate groups including GECKOS, DRONES, ROVERS and SPLINTERS. Sources inform TF that there were several raids across Europe yesterday, mainly focused on Norway and Sweden. Yesterday morning, TorrentFreak began receiving reports from multiple sources that something big was happening in the shadowy world of top-tier piracy known as ‘The Scene’. From the volumes of information received, the majority of sources indicated that many so-called ‘topsites’ and their members had disappeared or gone into hiding. The word was that several major movie release groups – SPARKS, GECKOS and DRONES – had been targeted in a series of raids and as a result, people were running for cover. Precisely where these raids or actions took place still isn’t entirely clear. Multiple sources point to the Nordic region, particularly Norway and Sweden, but reports of disruption and/or action in the Netherlands and even Switzerland persisted across our confidential sources, all of whom demand anonymity. Importantly, one name kept cropping up – ‘Artist’ – someone who was identified by at least two individuals with inside knowledge as a central figure, not only in The Scene but also in the action that appeared to unfold yesterday. The reality, it now transpires, is that the events of Tuesday had their roots in an investigation that started months – maybe even years ago. US Govt Legal Action Launched in January 2020 – George Bridi On January 8, 2020, an indictment in the case United States v. BRIDI was filed and sealed in a New York district court. Yesterday, as the action in Europe was unfolding, Magistrate Judge Debra C. Freeman ordered the indictment to be unsealed, shining significant light on the events of Tuesday. The indictment and Grand Jury charges target George Bridi, a British national who, according to the US Government, resided in the Isle of Wight, a small island off the south coast of England. Bridi is identified, along with others “known and unknown”, as a member of a criminal conspiracy, aka release group SPARKS and its affiliates. His Scene nickname, if he has one, is not listed in the available documents. Nevertheless, the US Government claims to know much about his activities. “The primary objective of the Sparks Group was to fraudulently obtain DVDs and Blu-Ray discs for copyrighted movies and television shows prior to their retail release date, compromise the copyright protections on the discs, reproduce and upload the copyrighted content to servers controlled by the Sparks Group, and disseminate the copyrighted content on the Internet for public consumption before the DVDs and Blu-Ray discs were made available for sale by retailers to the public,” Bridi’s indictment reads. The ‘conspiracy’, at least in the case of Bridi, was alleged to taken place from around 2011 until January 2020. It’s claimed that members of SPARKS made various “material misrepresentations and omissions” to wholesale distributors in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and New Jersey in order to obtain copies of DVDs and Blu-Ray discs prior to their official release. The indictment indicates that Bridi was also involved in obtaining and reproducing TV show content. Once obtained, members of SPARKS allegedly used specialist software to “rip” the discs in order to remove their copyright protections and then encoded the content into a format easily consumed via the Internet. This content was then uploaded to servers controlled by SPARKS members, from where it’s alleged other members further distributed the content to streaming sites, torrent networks and other servers. Adding to the information received yesterday by TF indicating that SPARKS, GECKOS and DRONES were central to Tuesday’s turmoil, the indictment adds two other release groups to the list – ROVERS and SPRINTER – both claimed to be part of the ‘Sparks Conspiracy’. Bridi is charged with conspiracy to commit copyright infringement, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and conspiracy to transport stolen property interstate. Superseding Indictment – Umar Ahmad, aka ‘Artist’ In addition to information received early yesterday by TF, with multiple sources referencing someone called ‘Artist’ involved in a central role, unsealed court documents now put more flesh on the bones. Identified by the US Government as Oslo, Norway, resident ‘Umar Ahmad’, it’s alleged that from around 2011 up to January 2020, ‘Artist’ was also a member of the ‘Sparks Conspiracy’. In common with Bridi, he is alleged to have caused “tens of millions of dollars” in losses to film production studios by being part of the SPARKS group that obtained physical discs from wholesale distribution companies, ripped and encoded them, and placed the content on the Internet for public consumption. Along with Bridi, he faces charges of conspiracy to commit criminal copyright infringement but charges of wire fraud and transporting stolen property are absent. Superseding Indictment – Jonatan Correa, aka ‘Raid’ Like Bridi and Ahmad, it’s alleged that Correa was involved in the ‘Sparks Conspiracy’ from around 2011 but his involvement is said to have stretched beyond the January 2020 dates listed in their Grand Jury charges by several months, to August 2020. For reasons that aren’t yet entirely clear, he appears to have carried on his alleged criminal activity until this month, unlike his peers who are only charged with offenses up to the first month of 2020. Correa’s charges read very much like Bridi’s and Ahmad’s, in that he stands accused of being part of the ‘Sparks Conspiracy’ that unlawfully obtained, ripped, encoded and uploaded video content to the Internet, including to various servers, streaming and torrent sites, all in advance of their official street date. “On numerous occasions between in or around 2011 and in or around May 2020 , a co-conspirator not named herein fraudulently arranged for discs containing copyrighted films and television shows to be picked up, mailed, or delivered from distributors located in Manhattan, Brooklyn, New Jersey, and British Columbia, Canada to other members of the Sparks Group, including JONATAN CORREA, a/k/a ‘Raid,’ the defendant, prior to their official release date…,” Correa’s indictment reads. It’s further alleged that around 2011 and in or around May 2020, Correa “remotely accessed” a computer located in Westchester County and belonging to another unnamed co-conspirator, in order to “illegally record and reproduce” copyrighted TV shows. While Bridi and Ahmad’s locations are revealed in court documents, Correa’s currently remains unknown. Like Bridi, he faces charges of conspiracy to commit criminal copyright infringement but in common with Ahmad, charges of wire fraud and transporting stolen property are absent. Supporting Reports and Information TorrentFreak is currently liaising with a number of sources who for security reasons are demanding anonymity. However, it appears that the information detailed thus far is just the tip of a large iceberg that has much of The Scene in turmoil and/or in hiding. What we can say at this point is that the mention of Umar Ahmad, aka ‘Artist’, is causing considerable concern because of his alleged reach in The Scene that seems to go well beyond SPARKS and its affiliated groups. We’ll have more on this in a follow-up report but in the meantime the US court documents can be found here (1,2,3 pdf) Source: TorrentFreak
  4. One of the key members of Scene piracy group SPARKS has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit copyright infringement. The US Government signed a plea deal with Jonatan Correa, who admitted being part of the notorious Scene group. While the offense is punishable by a maximum sentence of five years in prison, both parties agreed to a guideline of 12 to 18 months. Last year, the US Department of Justice booked one of its biggest successes in its battle against online piracy. In August, law enforcement upset the international piracy ecosystem by taking out a prominent Scene group, which was the source for many pirated movies and TV-shows. SPARKS Raids Throw Piracy Scene in Turmoil With help from international law enforcement partners, several raids and arrests were carried out, with the SPARKS group at the center of it all. The authorities later confirmed that three people had been indicted with all facing ‘copyright infringement conspiracy’ charges. The crackdown didn’t just affect these three but it hit the entire warez Scene. Dozens of topsites are believed to be taken down in the raids and many more halted their operations as a precaution, which significantly reduced the volume of pirate releases. With many of the court records not being available, it is hard to track the progress of the case. However, this week one of the defendants, Jonatan Correa (aka ‘Raid’), appeared in court before US District Court Judge Richard M. Berman. Correa was the only defendant arrested in the US last summer. After being placed in custody in Kansas, the defendant was released on a $75,000 bail bond the next day. Initially, he maintained his innocence and pleaded not guilty but that changed yesterday. SPARKS Member Pleads Guilty During a hearing via a telephone conference yesterday, Correa changed his earlier statement. The defendant signed a plea agreement with the US Government and pleaded guilty to the copyright infringement conspiracy charge. Among other things, Correa admits to conspiring with other members of the SPARKS group to commit copyright infringement. According to the indictment, that involved obtaining pre-release Blu-ray discs from wholesale distributors several weeks before their retail release date. During the hearing, Correa admitted that he ripped these discs and uploaded the pirated videos to a co-conspirator’s server, located in Westchester County. From there, these files were distributed further, eventually ending up on public sites. This allegedly cost the movie industry millions of dollars in damages. At the time of writing the plea agreement isn’t publicly available. This means that details are scarce at this point. US Government attorney Andrew Chan did mention during the hearing that they have ample evidence, including financial records and photos of the obtained discs, taken from the defendant’s email account. Correa informed the judge that he is fully aware of the consequences of his guilty plea. He further agreed to waive several rights and promised to fully cooperate with the Government’s preparation of a presentence investigation report. Correa Faces Prison Sentence In theory, a conviction for a copyright infringement conspiracy is punishable by five years imprisonment and a maximum fine of $250,000. However, both parties agreed to a sentencing guideline of 12 to 18 months for Correa, taking his cooperation and criminal history into account. The court scheduled the Sparks defendant to be sentenced in May and it’s likely that more details will become available before that date. The two other defendants, George Bridi from Great Britain and Norway resident Umar Ahmad (aka ‘Artist’), haven’t appeared in US court. According to the information we have available, Bridi has yet to be extradited from Cyprus where he was previously detained while Ahmad is still at large. Source: TorrentFreak
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