U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Justice Department officials on Wednesday announced that they have shut down nine Web sites as part of an initiative to bring criminal actions against sites that sell counterfeited goods and pirated movies.

Flanked by unfinished wooden sets on a soundstage at The Walt Disney Co.’s headquarters in Burbank, Calif., officials of ICE plus two studio executives and representatives of two of Hollywood’s largest unions said that thousands of jobs are lost when consumers download pirated movies or television shows from illegal Web sites.

Many of the sites operate on a “grand scale,” promoting organized crime and substantially hurting workers in the entertainment industry, which supports about 2.5 million jobs nationwide, said ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton.

“The American film and television business is a bed-rock of our economy,” he said.

ICE agents announced the seizure of nine Web domain names that were “engaged in criminal theft of American movies and shows,” Morton said.

The initiative, called “Operation In Our Sites,” involves ICE’s National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center in Virginia, which recently was restructured to combine the resources of government agencies including U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the FBI, the General Services Administration Office of Inspector General, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Commerce.

Unlike previous efforts to crack down on Internet piracy, the initiative targets a “class of violators” rather than individual Web sites, Morton said.

The main targets are the Web sites themselves, but consumers who visit these sites should proceed “carefully,” he said.

“This will be a sustained effort,” Morton said. “We’ll be at this week after week after week.”

Online piracy of movies and television shows has proliferated during the past year as technology has evolved, said Mike Robinson, senior vice president and chief of operations for content protection at the Motion Picture Association of America.

“At higher broadband speeds, consumers can download movies legally and illegally in a matter of minutes,” he said. Many of the sites have millions of visitors each month.

ICE estimated that copyright piracy has cost the U.S. economy more than $58 billion in lost output and nearly 353,000 lost jobs.

About 100 special agents in the United States and the Netherlands helped during the crackdown on the nine Web sites, from which nearly 7 million pirated movies and shows per month were downloaded, Morton said. Seven of the sites were targeted by prosecutors from the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York.

Agents executed residential search warrants in four states and seized assets from 15 financial accounts.

The crackdown is only the “tip of the iceberg,” said Frederick Huntsberry, chief operating officer of Viacom Inc.’s Paramount Pictures. He said that “cyberlockers” are an increasing threat to the movie industry and put consumers at risk of spyware, identity theft and financial fraud. Cyberlockers, which are sometimes run by criminal mobs, are foreign businesses that often appear to be legitimate sites.

Wednesday’s announcement followed about a week after the Obama Administration and Attorney General Eric Holder launched a joint strategic plan on intellectual property enforcement. Earlier this year, Holder formed a new Justice Department task force on intellectual property that is working with other agencies to protect intellectual property rights in the United States. In April, the department announced the appointment of 15 new federal prosecutor positions and 20 new FBI special agents devoted to intellectual property crimes.

Kathy Garmezy, associate executive director of governmental and international affairs for the Directors Guild of America, said that many of the people employed in the entertainment industry work on a freelance basis. Their pension plans depend upon revenue from residual sources such as cable, television and home video. In fact, she said, more than 70% of a motion picture’s revenues are derived from sources other than its initial release in the theaters.

“Internet theft is not a victimless crime,” Garmezy said.

Amanda Bronstad can be contacted at abronstad@alm.com.