BENNINGTON -- Vermont Attorney General William H. Sorrell came to the Banner office on Tuesday to speak of state initiatives against child pornography, "patent trolling," and the "cramming" by cell phone service providers of dubious third-party fees on their bills.
A native and resident of Burlington, Sorrell has served as the chief law enforcement officer in the state over eight two-year terms since 1998. The Democrat recently confirmed that he will seek re-election in 2014, his enthusiasm still strong to tackle these issues and litigation surrounding the closing of Vermont Yankee.
Sorrell said he has been traveling around the state to see how area Special Investigation Units (SIUs) have been working. He hopes to report to the legislature on what he finds.
"I think some tweaking could make some of them be much more effective," Sorrell said.
He noted that in Windham County, for instance, the SIU offices weren't handicapped accessible.
Sorrell spoke about getting additional investigative resources from the legislature "to attack the issue of online downloading and sharing of child pornography, particularly on these peer-to-peer file sharing groups."
They have arrested eight on child pornography related charges in the last six months. In two cases, the men were filming themselves on a smart phone while sexually molesting a child, he said.
"What originally got us to them was their online world activities, but once we got into their digital media, we found that they just weren't viewing," Sorrell said.
The investigators have software prepared by the Center for Missing and Exploited Children that can see when a person was last online, how many files they have downloaded and are available for sharing and descriptions of what's in the files.
The software can also find the IP address of the computer used by the person sharing, though investigators need to be mindful that a perpetrator could be using someone else's unprotected Wi-Fi service.
As recently as March 2012, police investigators in Vermont were looking into less than a dozen IP addresses, due to lack of resources. "We were relying on a Burlington officer and a South Burlington officer who did it on their own time; they had been trained in the software and had it available," Sorrell said. "So now I've got two of my criminal investigators fully trained. They've got a room in Montpelier, and we will target particular people."
A press release on the attorney general's website states that on Wednesday a Guilford man was charged with five counts of felony-level possession of child pornography.
Sorrell said that Vermont is leading the way on the issue of "patent trolling," which he said is as much as a $29 billion per year drag on the U.S. economy.
"Patent trolling is individuals or companies buying up patents, typically patents that aren't being used, they can buy them for a song frequently, and then they take a very aggressive stance as to what the patent controls, what technology falls within the patent," he said.
The companies will send letters to businesses or non-profits stating that "this or that aspect of your operation is in violation of our patent. You need to either cease and desist immediately or you need to work out with us licensing fees for the use of our patent technology," he said.
Vermont in the spring passed the first-of-its-kind in the country statue against the bad faith assertion of patent infringement, Sorrell said.
Before the law went into effect, the state also filed suit under its existing consumer protection act against a firm it alleges tried to shake down Vermont businesses and non-profits in this manner.
Just over a year ago, "we think a hundred small businesses and non-profits in the state received letters from this company called MPHJ Technology," he said.
The company claims to be located in Delaware but is really located in Texas. It sent letters, one claiming to own two patents and stating the firms and non-profits were in violation because they scanned documents and sent them out via email and sought licensing fees due to the supposed violation of their patent rights, he said.
Sorrell said Vermont filed a Civil Investigative Demand, essentially a subpoena, asking MPHJ Technology questions and asking them to provide information. "They didn't wholly respond to the CID but they responded with enough information that in late April we filed the first of its kind in the country state attorney general lawsuit against an alleged patent troll."
Sorrell defined cramming as "the unauthorized placement of third-party charges that come through on your monthly telephone bill. We started investigating land line cramming a few years ago."
The legislature has banned landline cramming in Vermont. State lawsuits against crammers already have netted $1.3 mission in recoveries for Vermont consumers who were crammed, he said.
"We have now shifted our focus to the wireless world," he said. "My office is the leader of a 46-state investigation of wireless cramming."
A state survey of Vermont customers of one of the big four wireless carriers who had third-party charges on their cell phone bills, showed that 62 percent of those with these charges on the bills "had no clue the charge was there, had not authorized the charge, and were not availing themselves of the supposed service that they were paying for," he said.
And 82 percent of Vermonters with third party charges did not know that third parties could put such charges on one's cell phone bill.
Sorrell himself got crammed on his state credit card by a service called "Mobile Love II," he said with a laugh.
"I was able to say to my staff, but in this case also AT&T when I met with them in (Washington) DC, ‘I didn't authorize it. I didn't go to any websites that might remotely be deemed to authorize this thing, and I had no idea it was there. And you tell me how it got there,'" he said.
An AT&T executive told him the charge might be the result of some kind of "malware" affecting his phone.
On a less humorous note, Sorrell said one of the third-party entities that puts charges on cell phone bills has the highly deceptive name "Basic Data Plan."
He added, "It is not your basic data plan from Verizon or T-Mobile or whatever."
Wireless cramming is estimated to be as much as a $2 billion a year problem nationally. "And we're the lead state into looking into that," he said.
Contact Mark Rondeau at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Banner_Religion