Comcast offers amnesty to Harford cable thieves Loss to theft put at $2 million a year

January 10, 1993|By Frank Lynch | Frank Lynch,Staff Writer

Wielding only coaxial cable, screwdrivers and pliers, they steal millions of dollars worth of cable TV signals.

These cable pirates illegally link to the service at cable boxes, telephone polls or in apartment complex equipment rooms.

Thieves get into the cable boxes by cutting locks with a hacksaw, hitting them with a sledgehammer, even driving vehicles into them.

Comcast Cable, Harford County's largest cable provider with 40,000 customers, reports losing about $2 million a year in revenue to thieves. And because the company pays Harford County a 5 percent annual franchise fee, the county loses $100,000 a year, said David H. Nevins, Comcast spokesman.

Mr. Nevins said receiving basic service without paying is the most prevalent form of cable theft. Some thieves receiving basic service use a "scramble box" to get access to premium channels. Others pay for basic service, then run cables to other TVs in their homes.

Comcast is offering amnesty until Jan. 31 to anyone stealing cable signals. Those who come clean during the amnesty can become paying customers or be disconnected.

"We would prefer not to prosecute," Mr. Nevins said. "It makes us appear the bad guy when, in truth, the bad guy is the person or persons not paying for our services.

"We're not out to send people to jail. We're just out to offer our legitimate and valued paying customers the best cable TV service possible."

Comcast plans field audits throughout the county after the amnesty deadline. Using sophisticated electronic equipment, technicians will sweep through every Harford neighborhood.

A "sniffer" detects signal leaks, indicating illegal hookups. Once a technician finds the bogus connection, he can fire an electronic "bullet" through the line. A ping, similar to sonar, indicates whether an illegal connection exists for a premium or pay-for-view channel.

Mr. Nevins said the company has received hundreds of calls about the amnesty.

In Harford, a women told Comcast her husband had been receiving cable free for a few years. She requested that the company bill her so her husband could avoid prosecution.

After the amnesty, Comcast will send cable thieves' names to the county state's attorney's office for possible prosecution.

Under a state law that took effect Oct. 1, cable thieves can be sentenced to six months in jail and fined $1,000. A second offense could bring a one-year term and a $2,500 fine.

Mr. Nevins said Comcast has files on 12 cable thieves in Harford and hopes they will take advantage of the amnesty. "If they don't," he said, "they will be the first names given to the state's attorney's office for prosecution."

About 75 thieves have been prosecuted in the metropolitan area. All received fines and one a six-month jail term.

More than 6,000 people responded to a similar cable amnesty program in Baltimore County, and 75 percent of them became paying customers. Comcast estimates as many as 1,000 more will participate in Harford.

"We think the people who steal cable are otherwise not law-breaking citizens, yet somehow the mind-set is that it's OK if you can get away with stealing $300 a year from your cable company," Mr. Nevins said.

He said cable thieves not only cheat the company and county but also neighbors because every illegal hookup worsens picture quality.

Basic cable service costs $7.95 a month, while 36-channel preferred basic service is $23.50. An additional $6.25 is added to the monthly charge for each additional outlet in the house. Premium channels range from $9.50 to $15.50 each.

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