Cable pirates to get pardon Prestige pledges not to prosecute repentant thieves

January 25, 1993|By Amy L. Miller | Amy L. Miller,Staff Writer

Sparks fly and smoke billows when the homeowner attempts to hook up his own cable television service without the knowledge or aid of the local cable company.

Meanwhile, a voice-over in the public service announcement tells viewers that stealing cable service is illegal, a crime punishable by fines or imprisonment.

The 30-second TV spot, one of several being aired by Prestige Cablevision over the next few weeks, is aimed at educating people about -- and curbing -- cable piracy, said Lou Rosenberg, the company's sales and marketing manager.

Prestige will begin an amnesty program in a couple of weeks, he said. During the amnesty period, illegal cable users may turn themselves in and have the company replace any illegal or homemade equipment without prosecution.

Cable piracy "is a problem here," Mr. Rosenberg said. "We've seen just about everything, from people climbing a pole to hook themselves up, people unhooking neighbors and hooking themselves up, to running their own wires to additional outlets in their house."

Similar educational programs by other cable companies in neighboring counties over the past few months led Prestige to begin its own effort in Carroll County, where it is the main cable provider, he said.

"We've been getting tips from people in other areas around us," Mr. Rosenberg said.

Prestige gets occasional tips from local customers about cable pirates.

Company employees also detect piracy. Sometimes when they service cables, they notice homemade hookups or find more outlets than a home is authorized to have, Mr. Rosenberg said.

Prestige hired an auditor for six months last year to examine every line in the system.

"A cable is like a broadcast antenna," Mr. Rosenberg said. "It radiatesa signal, and if it loses something we can detect that. We patrol the system to detect these leaks because it's a federal violation to have them.

"We can get fined a lot of money for leakage."

Another concern is companies that advertise cable television converters and descramblers for no monthly charge, said Mr. Rosenberg and assistant state's attorney Edward M. Ulsch. One such company, based in Jacksonville, Fla., has been advertising in a local newspaper, Mr. Ulsch said.

Prospective customers can call a toll-free number to receive a free catalog of the devices. It is not illegal to sell or own the equipment, but it can be seized and used as evidence of intent to defraud cable companies.

"In the catalog there is a disclaimer in very, very small print that you are not allowed to hook up without the permission of the local cable company," Mr. Ulsch said. "That is ridiculous. How could you possibly do that? After you've spent the $500 for equipment, you have to hook up to the existing cable company and they aren't going to let you do it.

Cable companies "are in business to make money, like any other business, so they want you to rent their stuff."

The Florida company's catalog offers a conversion box for about $285, Mr. Ulsch said. Prestige's $21.50-per-month charge for the 41-channel basic service includes the use of a converter box. The $9.95, 20-channel "Lifeline" service also includes a converter box.

The maximum penalty for a first offense of cable TV fraud is a $1,000 fine and six months in jail, Mr. Ulsch said. Repeat offenders can receive a $2,500 fine and a year in jail.

The maximum penalty for people convicted of illegally connecting others to cable TV for money is a $5,000 fine and five years in jail.

"This shows a clear legislative intent not to strongly go after the people out there who hook up their own," Mr. Ulsch said. "This is not the mom and pop operation, but the people who are trying to make money because they are a computer whiz."

Cable organizations also can seek civil injunctions and penalties against people who defraud a company, Mr. Ulsch said.

The state law, originally a couple of paragraphs long, was rewritten in 1992 to be more specific. It now includes all types of cable television fraud, Mr. Ulsch said.

"This includes more and is more foolproof," he said. "It is much harder for someone to get through some loophole now."

In the past year, Prestige has taken three cable fraud cases to court, Mr. Rosenberg said. Two people were convicted, and the third reached a pretrial settlement.

Many other suspected violators made restitution before charges were filed, he said.

Mr. Rosenberg said Prestige does not have figures on how much the company loses through cable piracy. The company estimates that 10 to 15 percent of the people outside its customer base could be stealing service.

"One illegal cable box can eat up a couple of hundred dollars in a month," Mr. Rosenberg said. "We figure we have over 22,000 subscribers, and [if you] take a modest 5 percent of that, that's a pretty big figure."

Mr. Rosenberg also said cable piracy affects honest cable users.

"It's just like shoplifting or any other crime," he said. "It costs money that will eventually affect the cost of services, from having rolling trucks to find people to paying for the time spent in investigations."

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