Comcast offers cable thieves amnesty Tough approach set after grace period of six weeks

April 02, 1992|By Leslie Cauley | Leslie Cauley,Staff Writer

Cable thieves, watch out: Comcast Cablevision is coming after you.

Comcast, which provides cable service in Baltimore County to 160,000 paying subscribers, claims that there are at least 40,000 other hookups that are illegal. And the company says it isn't going to take it anymore.

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.

"We're giving people a six-week opportunity to come clean," Mr. Pendleton said.

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.

According to Mr. Pendleton, verification process will reveal where programming is going, regardless if the receiving household is a legitimate customer or not.

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.

... TC Comcast says its losses from cable theft are increasing. It 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 there are 17,000 hookups receiving basic services illegally in Baltimore County and about 40,000 illegally receiving its premium channels, such as Home Box Office, Cinemax and Home Team Sports, the company says.

Comcast customers pay $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 will fetch illegal equipment and disconnect service for people who confess but don't want to pay. No fees will apply for disconnections.

Comcast tried an amnesty in 1987, and several hundred people with illegal hookups turned themselves in, said Stephen Burch, the company's area vice president.

Only a "handful" were prosecuted, according to Comcast's attorney. Mr. Burch said there were few prosecutions because of Comcast's documentation process. He said that process has been changed to make prosecution of offenders more likely.

Cable thieves may turn themselves in by calling Comcast at 560-1604.

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