Amnesty period yields 1,350 penitent cable thieves HOWARD COUNTY BUSINESS

February 04, 1993|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff Writer

About 1,350 Howard County residents avoided the risk of prosecution by calling Howard Cable Television before Sunday's amnesty deadline to report that they were receiving cable service illegally, a company spokesman said.

Those who are discovered through an audit of the system to be receiving cable service without paying for it are at risk of prosecution within the next 30 to 45 days, said David H. Nevins, spokesman for Howard Cable TV.

Lawyers for the company will review documentation of cable theft and decide which cases should be forwarded to the Howard County state's attorney's office.

The company received nearly 200 calls on Sunday, the last day of a no-questions-asked amnesty that began Dec. 21.

That volume was "astronomical" for a Sunday, Mr. Nevins said. "Obviously, once the Super Bowl started, the calls essentially ceased."

County Deputy State's Attorney Dwight Thompson said his office has not been consulted about the crackdown on cable theft and related cases.

"It would have been better if they came to us and planned this and worked with police," said Mr. Thompson, adding that the office would be inclined to send theft cases to the Howard Police Department. "It would be a smoother operation."

Howard Cable TV general manager Tom Beach said company investigators and attorneys will be preparing "pretty thorough" cases and will work with police on a case-by-case basis. He couldn't estimate how many cases the company will pursue.

Mr. Thompson said the state's attorney's office "will prosecute anybody who's charged."

Howard Cable TV conducted another six-week amnesty in April and May 1992 -- before a more stringent state law penalizing cable thieves became effective -- that produced more than 900 calls from residents who had illegal hookups.

The roughly 2,300 cable pirates who reported themselves to the company last year had helped boost the theft rate to about 5 percent.

Howard Cable TV has 45,000 paid subscribers in the Ellicott City, Columbia, Laurel, Savage and Elkridge areas.

Mr. Nevins estimates that between 1,000 and 2,000 residents are receiving cable illegally and haven't turned themselves in, based on industrywide theft rates.

Comcast Cablevision, which serves Baltimore County, sponsored two amnesties in 1992 and received about 9,800 calls, or about a 5.8 percent theft rate of the 170,000 paid subscribers.

The 1,350 or so cable thieves who turned themselves in recently to Howard Cable TV would have cost the company $380,000 annually in revenue had they continued stealing the service, at the basic cable service charge of $23.40 per month.

They also would have been taking about $19,000 in revenue out of county coffers, since the county receives 5 percent of Howard Cable TV's revenue.

Mr. Nevins said that about 800 of the 1,350 cable thieves chose to subscribe, which translates to about $225,000 annually in revenue at the basic rate for the company and $11,200 for the county.

Convicted cable thieves can receive penalties of up to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail for a first offense.

Howard Cable TV is continuing an audit of its wiring to determine the theft rate.

Residents can receive cable illegally through several methods, most commonly by tampering with the cable company's connection boxes and rigging their own wiring.

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