The way people are watching television and accessing their favourite programmes is changing rapidly. During lockdown, streaming services like Disney+, Amazon Prime and Netflix soared in demand as people sought out new boxsets to pass the time.
But the increasing array of services on offer means the criminal community is also looking for new ways to make money and defraud victims.
There has been a sharp rise in illicit Internet Protocol Television (IPTV), which is often available at cut-price deals online compared to legitimate subscription costs.
Listings can be found on eBay promising Sky Sports or the latest blockbuster movies for a fraction of the price paid through legitimate means.
With the English Premier League returning, there is likely to be a further spike in sales, with over 210,000 live streams blocked by the footballing authorities in 18/19.
The European Union Intellectual Property Office produced a report in 2019 which found that 3.6 per cent of the EU population was engaged in unauthorised IPTV consumption. With the Covid-19 lockdown, it is thought that consumption has since soared.
When bargains seem too good to be true, that’s because they probably are.
At Scots tech firm Vistalworks, we’ve been working to help people keep safe when shopping online, and we’ve developed a new warning system which alerts consumers looking at IPTV sales online on sites such as eBay.
It can be used either as a browser plug-in working behind the scenes, or by entering the URL of the product on our website, the Trading Standards Scotland website, or at consumeradvice.scot.
We’ve created this because people need to know if what they’re about to sign up to is illegal.
The “high-risk warning” is clear: you won’t get your money back if the service ends without warning; your personal data is exposed to criminals; and there is an extremely high risk of exposure to malware phishing and spyware.
Illicit IPTV services require the consumer’s personal information, including bank details and identity data.
Given these illegitimate vendors are often part of wider criminal networks, the risks of parting with this sensitive information are significant.
It can lead to people’s bank details being shared with those who specialise in defrauding personal accounts, or even the prospect of wholesale identity theft.
IPTV services can also stop at any point without any explanation or warning; so if you’ve signed and paid for a 12-month deal, it’s perfectly possible that the service you’re using could vanish after only a few weeks.
Illegal streaming platforms are now the number one online source of malicious software so users could be putting themselves at huge risk of inviting unwanted spyware into their devices when using illegal or illegitimate streaming subscription services.
With access to the device, criminals could access any personal data or account details stored on the device but even more worryingly, they may also be able to hack a family’s entire network.
And, crucially, now that so many people are working at home, illicit IPTV can also give criminals access to work networks, which is a major security risk that could cost people their job.
Many of these services have no block on adult-related content, meaning families who’ve signed up thinking they’re getting unlimited children’s movies could in fact be opening up something entirely different.
And piracy isn’t a victimless crime. It costs the arts industry across the world billions of pounds a year.
That’s something that can be ill-afforded at the best of times – but with the coronavirus pandemic bringing work to a near standstill, the knock-on impact for struggling actors, producers and others directly and indirectly linked to the sector is considerable.
Legitimate subscription services like Sky, BT and Amazon will be aware people are stealing their content and selling it on to unwitting customers – Vistalworks wants to help them put an end to this.
People also need to think twice about who is receiving their money. IPTV sellers are not well-meaning small businesses. They can even be set-ups which are linked to major international criminal gangs, whose hands are tainted with extremely serious wrongdoings which extend well beyond piracy.
Last year, police in Spain arrested gang leaders running an illegal IPTV streaming business, who had made €8 million on the scam since 2013.
Those streaming content which they do not legally have the right to should also remember they themselves are infringing on copyright law.
In 2018 a pub landlord in Yorkshire was fined £24,000 for illegally streaming Sky Sports.
So even though an estimated five million people across the UK accessed unlawful streaming services in 2017, it’s clear that the risk exists for people to be brought to book for doing so.
Lockdown restrictions have understandably led to a surge in television-watching – for many it has been the only available form of entertainment through months of misery and frustration.
However, it is such circumstances that criminals capitalise on the most, which is why it’s so important people are alive to the dangers of illicit IPTV packages.
An online warning system which alerts customers to the dangers as they shop around is therefore essential in this developing world of IPTV.
Lockdown has proved challenging enough, and the idea of an entertainment bargain has probably never been more appealing.
But the severe risks posed by unlawful subscription services are simply not worth it – and could lead to significant financial pain further down the line.
Vicky Brock is chief executive and co-founder of Vistalworks