Cable thieves, watch out: Comcast Cablevision is coming after you.
Comcast, which provides cable service in Baltimore County to 160,000 paying subscribers, claims at least 40,000 other people receive its services illegally. And the company says it isn't going to take it any more.
For six weeks beginning today, Comcast will permit cable thieves to turn themselves in -- no questions asked -- as part of an amnesty program. After that, it's going to be lawsuit time, said Curt Pendleton, general manager for Comcast in Baltimore County.
When the amnesty period ends May 15, Comcast plans a systemwide hunt for cable thieves. During the house-by-house hunt, which does not require workers to enter houses, workers will use electronic devices to verify every account in the county.
Cable thieves will be disconnected. Electronic documentation of the theft will be forwarded to the state's attorney's office in Baltimore County, said Ned Kodeck, Comcast's general counsel.
It will be up to state prosecutors to determine whether to press charges. If the state declines to press charges, Comcast may bring civil charges.
In Maryland, cable theft is a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $500 fine.
Comcast says its losses from cable theft are increasing. The company estimates that it lost $7 million to $10 million in revenues last year to cable thieves in bars, restaurants, apartment buildings and private homes.
Comcast estimates that 17,000 customers receive basic services illegally in Baltimore County. About 40,000 customers in the county illegally receive its premium channels, such as Home Box Office, Cinemax and Home Team Sports, the company says.
Comcast's paying customers spend $7.95 to $22.99 a month for basic service and a minimum of $11.99 a month for premium service.
Cable thieves who confess will be permitted to sign up for service, and Comcast will waive the $49.95 installation fee.
Comcast tried the amnesty approach in 1987, and several hundred illegal customers turned themselves in, said Stephen Burch, the company's area vice president.
Only a "handful" were prosecuted, according to Comcast's attorney.
Cable thieves may turn themselves in by calling Comcast at 560-1604.