It's the latest thing in video piracy. Apparently some daring souls are smuggling camcorders into movie theaters and taping hit films right off the screen. And copies are winding up on the street, sold by vendors for $10 or $15 apiece.

This is big in New York City, where low-quality video versions of "The Silence of the Lambs," "Dances With Wolves" and "Home Alone" have been confiscated from street sellers, according to Mark Harrad, spokesman for the Motion Picture Association of America. Sometimes, he says, there's even "a coughing or crunching of popcorn on the soundtrack."Washington is getting its first taste of the phenomenon with "New Jack City." Illegal cassettes of this hit movie have been floating around town for weeks. And from the reports of several people who've watched them, the bootlegs indeed seem to have been shot with a camcorder. "Saturday Night Live" comedian Chris Rock, a "New Jack City" co-star, even joked about it during a recent performance here. Balancing an invisible camcorder on one shoulder, he shushed an imaginary theater companion, saying, "Be quiet. I'm makin' a movie!"

Lorenzo Heard of Southeast Washington has seen a "New Jack City" video. His nephew bought it for $10 from a guy downtown.

"Really bad condition," says Heard. "Basically, the screen was blurry, it wasn't crystal clear. And the sound was kind of distant, (but) you could understand what was going on."

But "as with anybody who buys a bootleg album or tape, quality is not important. It's the performance itself," says Heard, a downtown record store clerk. "It's the moment that they're capturing." Having seen "New Jack City" at a theater and loved it, Heard enjoyed seeing it again on video. As he figures it, the market for these bootlegs is among people who've already seen the movie.

In New York City, the market is wide open. "You see these people all over the streets," says Carl McCaskill, an independent publicist there who has promoted "New Jack City." The film's producers, he says, are furious about the bootlegging.

The movie industry loses an estimated $150 million a year to video piracy, according to the MPAA in New York. That's largely because of sophisticated counterfeiters who duplicate movies that are already available on video, then wholesale their tapes to legitimate retailers. Law enforcement agents raided about 350 video retailers around the country last year, says Harrad, confiscating 180,000 illegally duplicated tapes.

The new breed of penny-ante video bootleggers "is not, in the sense of raw numbers, a real threat to business," Harrad says. But it's "particularly aggravating" because "it's right under our nose."

Federal law enforcement agents, in conjunction with the MPAA, have arrested some New York street-level bootleggers for copyright infringement, and state and local agents have made arrests under consumer protection laws. From the confiscated tapes he has seen, Harrad cannot figure why anyone would pay $10 or $15 for one.VIDEO QUESTION

Q: I think you may have misled your readers when you advised them to discard tapes in which the first part has been heavily used while the back part is like new. I just advance the tape past the used part and set the counter to 0000. When I use the back part it rewinds only to that point. Works fine.

A:. Good idea, and environmentally "friendly" as well, in that you get more use from the cassette. I will add only that most VCRs require you to press a "memory" button so the unit stops rewinding at 0000. - Andy Wickstrom (Knight-Ridder)NEWLY RELEASED VIDEOS

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