“Honestly. I hope we don't find anything,” Sam said.
We’re nestled in a corner booth at a Brooklyn Heights cafe on a pleasant, sunny fall afternoon, and he’s staring at his half-eaten bacon egg and cheese on a croissant, shaking his head. “And then I would make no money, and then we just had fun and ate tacos.”
Sam (not his actual name) is a 30-something freelance private detective. He acquired his PI license in January 2016, after five years spent toiling for a larger, well-known firm where he mainly worked corporate investigations, looking for fraud and other alleged white collar crimes.
But on Saturday night, he’ll be staking out bars and restaurants in a 90-block area of a primarily-Hispanic neighborhood in New York City, trying to catch a bar or restaurant showing an illegal broadcast of the the Canelo Alvarez-Gennady Golovkin middleweight fight.
His employer for the night, Audit Masters, an anti-piracy and signal protection company based in Texas, whose website strongly suggests that regardless of what pay-per-view boxing or MMA match they’re covering, private detectives should treat “Hispanic/Latino restaurants, bars, and billiard halls” as likely targets worth investigating. For the Alvarez-Golovkin fight, Sam received multiple emails from Audit Masters both in the weeks before and on the day of reminding him not to skip any “Mexican Restaurants or Taquerias” when searching for signal theft, and citing Alvarez’s Mexican heritage and popularity.
With millions in pay-per-view fees at stake, it’s not surprising that a cable company or a promoter would spare no expense in guarding a valuable revenue source. And while the type of piracy that Sam’s been hired to ferret out is taking place, the vast majority of the illegal activity occurs online. During a high-profile and high-cost bout, it’s almost impossible not to stumble across a Periscope, Twitch, or YouTube broadcast or links posted to Twitter, Reddit and Facebook.
The problem is, no one with skin in the game will say how much is being stolen. Online security companies will throw out outlandish figures, claiming that millions watched the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor fight illegally, for example, because it benefits their businesses to be seen as the last bulwark against massive theft.
The various social media platforms certainly won’t go on the record, nor will. HBO, Showtime, and other cable companies, all of whom desperately have no incentive to lay out the scope of the problem. For a high-cost and high-profile fight like Alvarez-Golovkin, HBO may not view the illegal streams as making a serious dent in their profits anyway.
So on Saturday Night, private eyes contracted by an online security company will be scouring the streets, putting put the fear of God into any business that might consider ducking out on the thousands in pay-per-view fees. If that means Audit Masters openly and privately instructs its charges to target vulnerable ethnic communities, and a few bars get fined or even sued into oblivion, so be it,
"To be honest, I made a mistake,” Sam said, regretting his hasty decision to accept the assignment, and specifically the way he’d be helping to target this community, one not that far from his home. “I should have done a little more research before agreeing to the gig. I have no malice towards the people who own these businesses. I don't want anybody to lose their business because they have to pay a huge fine."
Sam spoke with me on the condition of anonymity, fearing he’d be excommunicated from the relatively self-contained and secretive world of New York City private detectives and denied future jobs. Employers generally frown on PI’s who talk with the press and reveal their business practices, to say the least. But that doesn’t stop him from inviting me to accompany him for the actual stakeout the following night.
Why did he agree to take the job? The summer was usually a down time for private detective work, and he started to get desperate. “That's what happens when you haven't worked in a while,” Sam said.
While poring through job listings online, he happened upon a post submitted by Audit Masters on indeed.com. As to what entity or company had enlisted Audit Masters to undertake this task, it’s unclear. But in an identical ad to the one Sam saw that Audit Masters placed on LinkedIn, the company claims they have been “providing signal protection / Anti Piracy service to ALL HBO and Showtime Pay Per view Boxing Telecasts for over 20 years.”
In 2013, The Daily Dot unearthed a Philadelphia Craigslist post by Audit Masters seeking “auditors”—Audit Masters’ descriptor for their contracted, licensed PIs—to cover the Alvarez-Austin Trout fight and the Floyd Mayweather-Robert Guerrero fight. According to the ad, Audit Masters was working for the “owners of the rights to the HBO/Showtime Pay Per View signals.”
And in an old job listings page from 2016 on their website, Audit Masters states (emphasis theirs), “The attorneys that represent the owners of HBO, Showtime and UFC hire us to provide signal protection/anti-piracy service.”
That said, in none of the material I reviewed does the the company say outright that it will be working for HBO or its attorneys during the Alvarez-Golovkin fight, and Audit Masters did not respond to multiple interview requests.
Similarly, HBO declined to confirm or deny that they had a working relationship with Audit Masters for the Alvarez-Golovkin fight, nor were they willing to discuss their security measures at all. An HBO spokesperson said in a statement, “We are always mindful of piracy and are aggressive in our efforts to protect our content.”
Audit Masters would pay Sam $250 per bar and/or restaurant he captured on film stealing the fight. If he wasn’t able to catch anyone in the act, he’d get zip—meaning he, and all the other licensed PIs across the country working that night had a serious financial motive to pop some alleged perpetrators.
The company’s LinkedIn ad floated the idea that he might snag upwards of five bars during a four-hour shift—though they did not guarantee such a result—largely because of Alvarez’s presence, resulting in an extra $1,250 in his pocket. It’s impossible to say how many PIs in total Audit Masters had contracted to work on Saturday, though Audit Masters placed ads for the Alvarez-Golovkin fight on Linkedin seeking auditors in Long Beach, California, Orlando, Florida, Albuquerque, New Mexico, Fort Wayne, Indiana, Brownsville, Texas, Lincoln, Nebraska, and many other cities across the U.S.
The crime, if anyone did have designs on pulling it off, was a fairly low-tech operation, Sam said. An owner could hook their TV up to an illegal stream or pay what the general public doled out for home access to the fight: $79.95. Businesses, however, are charged significantly more. For example, The Kings Beer Hall, a bar in Brooklyn with a max occupancy of 200, paid HBO $4,500 to show the fight on seven screens and charged a $20 cover fee. Bars and restaurants with a larger potential occupancy would have been charged a higher rate, the bar’s marketing and sales manager told me via email, though he did not know how much that might be.
To surveil potential targets, Sam wouldn’t be using any exotic spying gear. He explained he did own a pen that had a miniature camera embedded in its retractable button, but it had a tendency to conk out at the worst possible moment. Instead, he’d rely on the same gadget we all have: his cellphone. Avoiding suspicion, he’d keep his face buried in his phone, acting as if he was looking to meet up with a friend, but secretly, he’d keep the phone’s video camera rolling. After getting the needed evidence of wrongdoing, Sam would feign receiving a call and calmly exit.
But Audit Masters makes it very clear who they want Sam to go after during the Golovkin-Alvarez fight. A list of 34 possible “leads” sent to him by Audit Masters is largely composed of bars and restaurants that contain Spanish-language names and words. Another email sent earlier this month by Audit Masters to confirm his desired territory stated, "Under no circumstances should Mexican Restaurants and Taquerias in your coverage area be overlooked."
Further, in none of the specific emailed instructions sent to Sam was he told by Audit Masters to surveil Russian or Eastern European establishments, even though those communities might have a definite rooting interest in Golovkin, a Kazakh. Audit Masters does generally recommend surveilling establishments that correspond with any boxers' specific ethnicity, however, in their online slideshow presentation.
“We also have the added dimension of the Mexican theme on this event,” the email sent by Audit Masters’ owner and founder, Dionel Garza, said, explaining why auditors could expect to ensnare multiple establishments that night. It could be a potential “bonanza,” according to Garza.
“It is being held on a hugely popular Mexican Holliday [sic], Dies y Seis De Septimbre,” the email continued. “And it is no coincidence at the top of the card is THE most popular Mexican fighter on the scene today. Tecate, Corona, and other major brands are doing a tie in on all Media Platforms. This event is getting a huge and heavy rotation in the Hispanic Media.”
“They’re the triers"
In an interview with Forbes, Irdeto, an online security company, claimed that 3 million people had used extra-legal measures to watch the Mayweather-McGregor fight, which, yes, was fairly easy to do without paying. Still, it either topped or matched the previous record for pay-per-view buys, previously set by the long-awaited Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight in 2015. Per Showtime’s estimates, around 4.6 million people paid up, meaning the bout might rake in more money than any fight in history. But if Irdeto is correct, it suggests that there were over 7 million potential buyers, and up to $300 million that was taken off the table. (Showtime didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
Is this an accurate figure? Unfortunately, HBO and Showtime will not say much money they’re actually losing out on due to online piracy. In reality, they may not be able to pin down an exact number. Contrast that with the UFC, which has been very vocal about the issue. In 2009, in a letter to Congress, it’s former CEO claimed, “the UFC is potentially losing tens of millions of dollars a year from piracy.”
For the online security companies, the larger the estimated number of pirates, the more their services are seen as essential, a narrative that does nothing but help their bottom line. Like an online game of whack-a-mole, networks flex their operations during a major pay-per-view event, and their lawyers have DMCA takedown notices ready to go, should an army of wonks combing through the darkest corners of the internet hit paydirt. But the specifics of those operations—and what their best practices might be—remain unknown.
Facebook and Twitter declined my request for an interview and refused to divulge any details or whether they had any special arrangement in place with HBO for Saturday. Both companies cited their publicly-available copyright policies, as did the live streaming platform, Twitch, which emailed a re-worked version of the copyright policy contained on its “Community Guidelines” page. YouTube did not respond prior to publication.
But Mark Taffet, who created HBO Sports’ pay-per-view model and oversaw 190 events during his more than twenty-year tenure before leaving the company in 2015, doesn’t think online piracy is a serious problem for his former employer. Prior to the he Mayweather-McGregor fight, he told Yahoo that the illegal streams won’t have much of an impact on pay-per-view buys, simply because someone who was driven to click on a jangly Periscope broadcast was never a potential customer, not with a $99.95 price tag for the HD version.
“Those people absolutely not were never going to buy it, no matter what,” Taffet said. “They’re the triers.”
Reached by email, John Ourand, the media reporter for Sports Business Journal, agreed with Taffet, and the proof is the continued existence of illegal streams. If they were causing significant losses, “HBO and Showtime would be more vigilant in putting a stop to it, much in the way that the NFL has been able to do with highlights on Twitter and Facebook, given their relationship with social media platforms,” he said.
Ourand pointed to the robust pay-per-view buyrates for the Mayweather-McGregor fight, and explained that cable companies not only might be willing to write online piracy off as a “cost of doing business,” it’s possible they see it as providing an inadvertent benefit.
“In a sense, HBO and Showtime could view the streams as a form of marketing for future pay-per-view events.” said Ourand.
Daniel Roberts, who covers boxing extensively for Deadspin, offered a similar line of reasoning.
"Streaming is such an inferior experience that no one who cared enough to plunk down $100 would have opted for it,” he said via email. Like Ourand, Roberts speculated that, “If anything, the streamers helped by driving up interest on social media and perhaps generating some additional buys.”
Roberts added that since the Mayweather-McGregor fight nearly equaled the pay-per-view totals amassed by Mayweather-Pacquiao, even though far fewer people showed up and bought a ticket to see the former live, “That suggests that [Showtime] captured their entire market.”
“There’s really nothing that would lead you to think this spectacle would have sold better than Mayweather-Pacquiao, even under perfect conditions, and that fight did not suffer from nearly as much piracy.”
If Taffet, Ourand, and Roberts are correct, and online piracy isn’t a calamitous worry for the cable companies, there is a cruel and brutal logic to be found in employing a squad of private eyes on the night of, though it’s impossible to calculate how many of them are on the case, say definitively if Audit Masters is working for HBO, or if HBO is enlisting any additional anti-signal piracy companies. It’s also easy to see why an excessive approach would serve as a deterrent, particularly when the enforcement is centered on a smaller community.
Snagging just a few bars and restaurants means a warning will be spread by word-of-mouth, dissuading any potential future thieves. Plus, there’s a vast difference between losing out on $79.95 from a single customer, and thousands from a few bars, no matter how small.
“I feel like tonight’s gonna be a big nothing”
The PI and I start in a nondescript parking lot, hashing out the plan of attack with his partner for the evening, Walt, a retired New York City police officer.. Should they catch anyone, they’d split the pot 50-50, (Walt also agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, for the same reasons as Sam.)
He’s affable and stocky, with a thick, protruding belly. Tonight, he’s wearing dad jeans, a navy polo shirt and is toting a leather cell phone holster. Whatever preconceived idea you might have of what a private detective might look like, he isn’t it. That’s the point. He blends in to the point where his presence wouldn’t scan as odd—no matter where he went. He could be anyone.
He and Sam pore over the last-minute instructions provided by Audit Masters. In order to get paid, we need four types of still photos: shots of the block itself, one of the roofline, another of the storefront, and one of the side of the building. (That last one isn’t going to be found very often on a city street, with bars wedged right up against bodegas, Duane Reades, and laundromats.) Then there’s the footage shot while inside the establishment. They require one minute of filming that covers as much of the interior as possible, including the broadcast, employees, patrons, and so on—all of whom could be subpoenaed, should they be caught pirating the bout and then taken to court.
Audit Masters wants to build an airtight case, one that leaves no wiggle room for an owner to proclaim innocence—not when facing a stack of notarized affidavits and visual evidence.
Out of the 25 restaurants and bars that Sam had identified as possible targets the Wednesday prior, 12 are closing at 11 p.m. Even if all goes according to schedule, the opening bell for the main event won’t sound until 10:54 p.m. Unless someone was planning to keep a joint open past regular hours, half of the list could be ruled out.
We head out into the night and the first place we hit is a well-lit Mexican restaurant with a brick exterior. Inside, there’s one gleaming mirrored wall, Mexican flags are draped throughout, and a few scattered patrons are hunched over their meals. The manager and bartender, who are huddled at the bar, see us enter. Walt strolls lazily about, as if he’s looking for a friend. A match between León and Pachuca, teams from the top Mexican pro soccer league, Liga MX, plays on two TVs, plus a third big-screen that has been set up in the side dining area. León will go on to win, 3-1.
The manager asks if he can get us a menu, but Walt demurs and we shuffle out. Within two blocks is another potential target, a biker bar that Sam is checking out alone. We head over to meet him there. Outside, bikers in sleeveless leather vests are milling around, smoking and generally letting it be known that this is their turf, though there’s no outright sense of danger or hostility. Inside the dark bar, a disco ball spins, sending beams of light pulsing throughout the maybe 10 to 12-foot wide space. The same Liga MX match was playing on a single TV.
We trudge back to the car. “I feel like tonight’s gonna be a big nothing,” Walt grumbles.
At 8:31 pm, Sam reads from a last-minute email sent by Audit Masters showing that, in addition to the over 3,000 bars and restaurants, an additional 455 bars had legally paid up for the fight at the last minute. In the email, the company tells auditors that “the client,” who remained unnamed, requested that chain restaurants like Hooters, Dave & Busters, and Buffalo Wild Wings should not be surveilled, regardless of whether they were on the “legal” list, and added one final reminder of who and what Audit Masters wanted auditors to focus on:
“Remember, this event is a ‘Mexican’ themed event,” the message, again sent from Garza’s Audit Masters email address, read. “It is being held on a popular Mexican Holiday. With the Top Mexican in the sport at the top of the card. Do not overlook any Mexican Restaurants or Taquerias that may be in your coverage grid.” (David Crisantes, Audit Masters’ national coordinator, was also cc’d on the email.)
We follow orders, pulling up at a fluorescent-lit, packed taqueria. Out front, a mother is bouncing gently up and down, cradling a softly mewling child, and trying to coax him or her to sleep. Two boys, who appear to be around 6 or 7, race around her, playing an undefined game of tag and cackling with joy. Diners are happily tucking into plates of food, silverware clinking, and a full kitchen crew was busy in the back, barking out orders and cranking out meals. An unknown Spanish-language TV show was playing, but the sound was drowned out. No one was watching it.
We continue tooling up and down the avenues, poking our heads in various places, finding squat. At times we don’t even bother to pull over and park, not when a non-boxing broadcast is visible through the storefront window. By 9:15, we’ve ticked eight restaurants and bars off the list. 17 remain, but with two hours left until the main event, we decide to kill some time at one of the previously scoped-out taquerias to grab a bite. Sam says he’s eaten there before.
Crammed in a lime-green linoleum booth, we wolf down tacos, a burrito the size and shape of a deflated football, and a quesadilla. Scrolling through my phone, I search Twitter for “alvarez golovkin” and the second suggestion that comes up is “alvarez golovkin stream,” which leads to a seemingly-endless procession of tweets with links to dodgy, non-U.S. websites, plus YouTube and Periscope broadcasts.
Some of them actually redirect to porn sites, offshore gambling houses, and all manner of questionable online activity. A wide swath of internet hucksters are looking to piggyback on a trending topic, it seems. I explain to the private investigators that this right here is where the bulk of the theft is occurring tonight. Walt furrows his brow as I find a working link, and a tiny, grainy window flickers to life, showing a match from the undercard. Someone shuffles down the aisle of the restaurant halfheartedly offering bootlegged copies of The Emoji Movie for sale.
We return to the job. It’s now close to 10 p.m. Two restaurants have already shut down for the for the evening, leaving 15 potential targets to go. Boredom begins to set in, but Sam and Walt explain that in the PI business, this is very much the norm.
They take turns spilling a shaggy dog story about how they met. Both were working for separate, larger firms over a year ago that had been hired by a very wealthy woman living in another state whose son had skipped town then holed up in one of her many apartments with a non-American woman who was pregnant with his child. This very concerned mother was paying two firms to ensure that her her son and his mate were kept under 24-hour,‘round-the-clock surveillance.
At one point, Sam was sent to tail the woman in question during her doctor’s appointment, wearing bulky, oversized sunglasses that had been equipped with a hidden camera. The firm also insisted that Sam wear an equally oversized hat that they hoped would de-emphasize how ridiculous the glasses looked. Of course, Sam recorded nothing other than a mundane checkup.
“Some people who get into this are real cowboys”
One by one, we cross restaurants off Sam’s spreadsheet until, at 10:45 we finally encounter something fishy. It’s a decrepit bar-restaurant that Sam had his eye on. A bit of online research showed that it used to be a taqueria, he said, but was shut down because of a shooting. Now, it had been revived and listed a “sports club” with a few hand-scrawled signs out front listing upcoming soccer matches. There’s no indication, either at the establishment itself, or online, how long it’d stay open that night.
Walt and I loiter out front. He futzes with his phone while I light a cigarette. The windows are darkened and it’s tough to tell if anyone might be inside, but two shimmering TV screens are displaying still image: a woman in a bikini. At the top, we can barely make out what appears to be a web browser tab.
Were they routing an illegal online stream? The formerly still images begin to move. It’s not a soccer match, to be sure, and maybe, possibly, it’s some pre-show clip reel from HBO, but it’s impossible to tell exactly what. Walt mutters under his breath, “Let’s get out of here.” We’ll circle back once the main event has started, but I feel a rush of energy and excitement. In that moment, I want to see someone get caught red-handed.
Back in the car, I’m reminded of something Sam had previously said while complaining about a dodgy online private investigative training course that promised to thoroughly prepare anyone for the PI license exam, and a future life packed with plentiful, thrilling jobs, for around $1,000.
“Some people who get into this are real cowboys,” he says with palpable dismay. They both had chuckled at the thought of ever coming to gig armed, or wanting to become a private eye for the hard-boiled action, laboring under the false pretense that this is mainly dangerous, sexy work. The vast majority of the time, you just sit around, wait, and do absolutely nothing, they say.
By 11:05 p.m., we’ve returned to the bar-restaurant in question. While still seated on the passenger side, Sam begins taking the required still photos of the restaurant’s exterior and neighboring buildings. Walt peels out, driving a few blocks away to park. I check Twitter to make sure that the various national anthems have been sung and introductions completed. Walt and I scoot back to the sketchy bar-restaurant.
My eagerness and apprehension mounts in tandem. As we approach the door, I flick a cigarette butt to the sidewalk. We enter, and any hope of catching would-be criminals in the act crumbles in an instant.
The owners they have not stolen the fight, but rather hooked up their TVs to a computer streaming YouTube. It’s blaring salsa music videos and not an illegal feed of the fight, hence the presence of the browser tab we spied earlier. A waitress in a tube dress is dancing with a customer who is either so drunk or so enraptured with his partner that I fear he might collapse in a heap to the floor or maybe into her. Four somber and weary guys wearing t-shirts and work pants are hunkered over a half dozen amber-colored beer bottles at a side table.
There are no pirates or piracy to be found here. Still, we march up to the bar and grab a beverage. While Walt hits the head, behind the counter stands a nonplussed bartender dressed in a tie and short sleeved button-down white shirt. I slide him my credit card, but the credit card terminal is on the fritz. Walt plunks down a twenty on the counter and, smiling, we walk out to meet up with Sam, who’d ducked into a nearby diner.
For Sam and Walt, the night was a complete washout.
“I lost money tonight,” Walt says, shrugging. I hit the diner’s ATM to repay Walt for the beverage tab. Whether the threat of previous busts in the area dissuaded any proprietors in one particular stretch of New York City or they never entertained the idea at all, we’ll never know.
I flag down a cab. Sinking into the back seat, I open Twitter to see who’d won the fight, which ended up being an exciting—if controversial—split decision draw. Without searching for it, a Periscope link pops into my feed. I click on it and see a wobbly cell phone camera shot of someone’s television, and Golovkin hammering away at Alvarez in the 10th round. I am one of the many witting and unwitting recipients of stolen copyrighted material that night, and definitely a “trier.”
I save the tweeted link. By the time I’d gotten home, it was dead.