Cable TV thieves flock to amnesty The sniffers may get you if you don't confess

December 31, 1992|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,Staff Writer

As its final amnesty program comes to an end, Comcast Cablevision is being flooded with calls from people afraid of being prosecuted for stealing cable service and those who are finally deciding to confess and pay, a company spokesman said.

"People are finally realizing the free ride is over, the end of the road has come, all those cliches," said. David H. Nevins, a spokesman for Comcast and its recently acquired Storer cable company that serves Howard County. "Now is the time. There won't be another amnesty."

The amnesty offer ends at 8 p.m. today in Baltimore County, and will continue until Jan. 31 in Howard and Harford counties, said Mr. Nevins.

The company started the program after receiving dozens of calls this month following the Baltimore County state's attorney's prosecution of tougher criminal laws against stealing cable service.

The new law, which took effect Oct. 1, sets out various misdemeanors for illegally receiving or installing cable service. Convicted cable thieves can receive up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Second-time offenders could be sentenced to a one-year prison term and a $2,500 fine, while those who make illegal cable installations could get up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Under the amnesty terms, anyone currently receiving cable service without paying can continue and start paying, or be disconnected without penalty, said Mr. Nevins. The company is using electronic detection devices known as "bullets" and "sniffers" as part of a house-by-house audit that's expected to catch 90 percent of the illegal hook-ups. Comcast services nearly 250,000 customers in the counties affected by the amnesty.

Last May, a similar amnesty program in Baltimore County received 1,000 calls in its last days. Mr. Nevins said he expects even better results this time around.

"We think we'll hit 2,000, 2,500 without much difficulty," he said. "We were at about 500 [callers] for a week. [Monday], we suddenly got about another 500 in one day."

By 4 p.m. Tuesday, there had been 1,400 calls.

Deputy State's Attorney Howard B. Merker said, "We're getting all kinds of calls: People saying, 'Suppose I'm splitting it in my house?' or 'They were here to fix something, and now I'm getting Home Teams Sports and HBO.' "

Paying subscribers have reported nonpaying neighbors, Mr. Nevins said. An elderly man turned in a son he suspected of having rigged their service. A wife called about her unrepentant husband. She was afraid he would go to jail rather than pay for cable television.

About 75 people have been charged with stealing cable service, Mr. Merker said. So far, all of the cases have ended in convictions or probation without a guilty verdict. Some violators have been fined. One person has been sentenced to jail.

Still, there are hold-outs.

"The attitude seems to be among these people that if they wait, they get another week free," said Mr. Nevins.

About 75 percent of those who have called have chosen to become paying subscribers, said Mr. Nevins. Previously, the conversion rate has been closer to 50 percent.

"These are hard-core, longtime people who passed up the previous amnesty," said Mr. Nevins. "They are cable addicts: They want cable and apparently decided, finally, that they'll break down and pay for it."

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

Mr. Nevins said about 20 new prosecutions for cable theft are ready.

"And the thing is," he said, "we know who they are, but they don't know who they are."

The company also is planning a rate increase. Beginning Jan. 1, cable subscribers will pay another $1.16 a month, except for a few customers receiving a limited basic service.

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