Cable firm cracks down on illegal connections

January 31, 1993|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff Writer

The Howard Cable Television technician runs his hand-held "sniffer" near the wires of yet another broken cable TV box outside an apartment complex in Laurel.

The sniffer, the Geiger counter of the cable TV industry, looks like a walkie-talkie. It emits a whir and sends the frequency detection meter swinging toward the red zone, indicating a conspicuous cable TV signal leakage.

John Wade, Howard Cable TV audit coordinator, checks his master list of addresses in the company's service zone, which shows all current and previously disconnected subscribers and all residences that never have been hooked up. He discovers that two of the eight potential customers in the apartment building are receiving cable TV service illegally.

He documents the illegal hookup and equipment damage for possible use in court, places identification on the wiring, disconnects the service and puts a security device on the connection equipment inside the box to try to deter further tampering.

Subdivision by subdivision, apartment by apartment, crews of Howard Cable TV auditors are checking cable wiring in the Ellicott City, Columbia, Laurel, Savage and Elkridge areas to determine who is receiving the service without paying for it.

Today marks the last day for cable thieves to turn themselves in to the company with no questions asked and no risk of prosecution. Once the amnesty ends, the cable company warns that it will prosecute those found illegally receiving the service.

As of last week, the company had received more than 1,000 calls from residents taking advantage of the monthlong amnesty.

Howard Cable TV has 10 crews auditing the system, six days a week, year-round. In addition to detecting illegal connections, the auditors keep track of damage and repair equipment.

"The main point the public needs to know is that they can't hide," said Steve Warburton, Howard Cable TV installation manager, who joined Mr. Wade in yesterday's audit of the Laurel apartment complex. "We're going to find them -- if not today, maybe tomorrow."

At the Laurel complex, the auditors found a variety of evidence ofattempts to steal cable: hard plastic boxes that house the cable equipment shattered, box locks broken, key components of the wiring circuit broken and missing, shoddy hookups that were giveaways of a homemade wiring job.

Of the first seven boxes checked, each with eight potential hookups, the auditors discovered six illegal hookups and several other failed efforts that damaged equipment.

The domed boxes are marked with a warning that cable TV theft is illegal and violators will be prosecuted. But the warning and security devices aren't always enough to keep people from trying to save the $23.40 monthly charge for basic cable service, Mr. Wade said.

People can figure out how to steal cable service if they gain access to the system, either by rigging the wiring and connection points themselves or by hiring someone with experience, Mr. Wade said. But those rigging jobs often are done BTC amateurishly with substandard equipment, making it easy to detect through manual inspections or with the sniffer, auditors say.

"There's definitely a science to making a connection," Mr. Warburton said. "If a person isn't trained in the science of it and doesn't have the proper tools, the sniffer is going to pick it up."

Howard Cable TV has always conducted audits, but has been cracking down on thefts recently, especially since a state law went into effect last year stiffening penalties for receiving cable service illegally. The maximum penalty for those convicted of a first offense is as much as a $1,000 fine and six months in jail.

The company loses money because of cable service theft and equipment damage caused by vandalism, Mr. Warburton said. Theft forces subscribers to pay higher rates and takes money from the county, which receives a portion of the company's revenues under a franchise agreement.

"If it's necessary to scare people into coming forward, we're happy to do it," said David H. Nevins, Howard Cable TV spokesman. "The fact of the matter is they're stealing the product."

The company will take calls until about 8:30 tonight at 461-1156.

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