Stealing cable TV? Holiday amnesty is here Comcast, Storer call it last chance

December 18, 1992|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,Staff Writer

Overwhelmed by thousands of calls from people scared by well-publicized prosecutions of cable TV thieves, the Comcast and Storer cable television companies are offering amnesty from prosecution for the holidays.

The "one last, absolute final" turn-yourself-in-with-no-questions-asked period will begin Monday and extend through Dec. 31, according to David H. Nevins, president of Nevins and Associates, a Comcast spokesman.

Howard B. Merker, deputy state's attorney for Baltimore County, said yesterday that Comcast did the groundwork for about 75 theft cases that have been already been prosecuted by his office under a new state cable-theft law that took effect Oct. 1.

But Mr. Nevins said the cable company would rather gain customers than rack up convictions. He estimated that 10,000 to 20,000 people could benefit from the amnesty.

Comcast services almost 250,000 customers in Harford and Baltimore counties, and in Howard County through the recently acquired Storer cable company, Mr. Nevins said.

The company pays the counties a 5 percent franchise tax. He claimed that cable TV theft not only costs the company millions, but also represents "a significant loss of revenue to local government."

A yearlong, house-by-house audit is under way and should be completed by summer, he said. It is expected to net 90 percent of those illegally receiving cable, "so the odds are pretty good that you're going to get caught."

A six-week amnesty program last spring brought in almost 7,000 people, he said, and about 60 percent chose to become paying customers. The rest chose to be disconnected.

Baltimore County's criminal prosecutions all have resulted in convictions or probation before judgment. The latter leaves no criminal record if the defendant has no further problem with the ++ law, Mr. Merker said.

One man received a six-month jail term in District Court for illegally installing cable service but is appealing the conviction to the Circuit Court.

"One of our concerns, as well as the law, is alleged cable theft takes money . . . from Baltimore County, because they [Comcast] have to pay fees to the county based on the number of customers," Mr. Merker said. "I think they've estimated more than $500,000 in losses to Baltimore County, based on the number of turn-ins before."

Under the new laws, he said, cable TV thieves can receive up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, with a one-year term and a $2,500 fine for a second offense. Illegal installers can get up to five years and a $5,000 fine.

At least three Comcast employees have been caught and prosecuted, he noted.

"A whole lot of people out there . . . didn't take the company seriously until they read about the prosecutions," Mr. Nevins said. "Many are what we call Harry Homeowner types. A lot of people are surprised that people are being prosecuted for a crime of stealing cable TV.

"So the company has been literally deluged with thousands of phone calls from people who face a dilemma of sorts: There's no amnesty now; they're stealing cable, and they don't want to be prosecuted."

Mr. Nevins said the calls have been handled case by case, usually without charges. But this approach was overwhelming the company, so it decided to offer another amnesty period, he said.

During the amnesty, Mr. Nevins said, all installation fees from those who choose to become paying customers will be donated to charity. The fees range from $10 to $50.

Anyone wishing to participate in the amnesty program may call the company at 252-1000 or 560-1604 in Baltimore County, 272-7500 in Harford County and 461-1156 in Howard County.

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