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A co-leader of an Internet software piracy group that authorities say was responsible for billions of dollars in lost sales was sentenced to nearly four years in prison Friday. John Sankus Jr., 28, of Philadelphia was a leader of DrinkOrDie, described by prosecutors as one of the largest, most sophisticated rings of software pirates. His 46-month sentence is the largest ever for Internet piracy, U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty of the Eastern District of Virginia said at a news conference. “This sentence sends a strong message to those that think they’re invisible because of the anonymity of the Internet. We will find you,” McNulty said. “You will serve years in prison.” Sankus had pleaded guilty in February to conspiring to commit copyright infringement as part of a deal with prosecutors. At his sentencing in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Sankus apologized to the companies “and especially to my family for dragging them through this.” Authorities believe DrinkOrDie cost the industry up to $5 billion in lost sales each year. Sankus’ attorney, Harvey Sernovitz, said that Sankus, whose regular job was with computer maker Gateway Inc., made no money from his actions with DrinkOrDie. He said Sankus’ group specialized in cracking high-end technical software. “They had no use for that software, other than to show off their cracking skills,” he said. But prosecutor Robert Wiechering said that “the effects of what Mr. Sankus did are very serious. There really are victims in this type of offense.” The sentence imposed by U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema was the minimum under the federal sentencing guidelines. Sankus could have been fined up to $100,000 but the judge waived the fine, saying Sankus could not afford it. Authorities say DrinkOrDie was effectively shut down in December with raids in 27 U.S. cities and five other countries as part of “Operation Buccaneer.” Numerous members are facing prosecution. DrinkOrDie, founded in Moscow in 1993, gained its fame by releasing a pirated copy of the Windows 95 operating system two weeks before it was even released by Microsoft. Sankus operated within the group under the name “eriFlleH,” or HellFire spelled backward. Prosecutors said Sankus was responsible for DrinkOrDie’s day-to-day operations, supervising 60 individuals who would crack codes designed to prevent piracy. Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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