County police and state agricultural officials arrested three men Wednesday in an unusual sting operation that targeted the illegal sale of firewood.
An undercover agent from the Maryland Department of Agriculture met with the men, identified as employees of the Virginia-based Curtis Woodward Tree Service, to purchase five cords of wood --but he didn't get what he paid for.
The five cords of wood on the back of the pickup truck turned outto be only nine-tenths of one cord, hardly worth the $500 price tag.
County police officers, waiting just out of sight near a Laurel home, moved in and arrested the suspects for felony theft.
Agriculture officials say that Howard, along with Montgomery and Prince George's counties, is among the hardest hit by con men who literally rob from the hearth.
"We've had a serious problem with this kind of thing," said Kenneth Butcher, assistant chief of the state Department ofAgriculture's weights and measures division.
"People don't understand what a cord is and therefore a lot of families out there are losing a lot of money."
A cord, which typically sells for about $100,measures 128 cubic feet and usually cannot fit on the back of the average pickup truck, Butcher said.
"Anything in bulk is fair game, whether it be wood or topsoil," Butcher said. "You come home and it'sdumped in your driveway. At first it seems like a lot."
County police charged a delivery man from a Pennsylvania company two weeks agoin a similar sting operation. Felony theft carries a maximum penaltyof 15 years in jail.
Agriculture officials say that due to an apparent increase in the bogus wood-selling operations, they will be working more closely in coming months with area police departments to catch the misleading entrepreneurs.
Local and state authorities report that the number of reported rip-offs rises in proportion to the use of wood for fuel.
A new program also is being established that would target repeat offenders. In many cases, the "fuel thieves" come from out of state, said Stephen D. Hannan, chief of the county Consumer Affairs division.
Someone delivering a cord of wood from out ofstate immediately should be suspect, Hannan said.
"If you're going to drive down from Pennsylvania to sell wood, you've got to be making good money to cover your expenses," Hannan said. "A truck can only hold one cord, and the profit margin for one cord isn't so good if you're driving in from out of state."
Only one undercover wood buywas set up in Howard County last year. But with four arrests alreadyin 1991, police say they hope to send the message out that the wood sellers -- who only need a county peddler's license to operate -- arebeing watched.
County police offer the following tips to spot a businessman who has cut corners on his cord cutting:
* Stack and measure the wood prior to burning. A cord measures 4-by-4-by-8 feet, neatly stacked.
* Purchase locally or from someone in Maryland, if possible.
* Get a delivery ticket that specifies how much wood was delivered to you. Under state law, wood is a fuel and you are entitled to this ticket.
* If you are solicited door to door, request to see the person's Howard County peddler's card. If they do not have one, do not purchase the wood.
* If you have questions about the seller or company you are dealing with, call the county office of consumer affairs at 313-7220 or the Maryland Department of Agriculture at 841-5790.