Amnesty over, N. Arundel Cable will prosecute TV signal pirates

July 01, 1993|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Staff Writer

North Arundel Cable TV is on the lookout for cable pirates and expects to sign the first of a series of complaints with the state's attorney's office by September.

Auditors have been canvassing the company's North County service area since June 1, disconnecting service to nonpaying subscribers and fixing broken equipment, said Paul Janson, marketing and programming manager.

Illegal subscribers could face up to one year in jail and fines of up to $2,500 under a state law that took effect in October.

North Arundel, which serves 43,600 customers, began a field audit after offering amnesty in May to anyone stealing cable signals. More than 400 people turned themselves or their neighbors in, Mr. Janson said.

They included legal subscribers to basic service getting free premium channels through a "scramble box" and viewers who hooked up basic service on their own, sometimes by breaking into cable boxes.

During the amnesty period, the company launched a publicity campaign letting people know that cable piracy is a crime and could drive up rates. Paying subscribers anonymously turned in neighbors, and one child even turned in his parents, Mr. Janson said.

Of the 400 who came clean, nearly half agreed to become paying subscribers or upgrade the basic service rather than have their service cut off.

Cable providers have offered similar amnesty programs in Baltimore, Howard and Harford counties. More than 6,000 people responded to Comcast Cable's amnesty offer in Baltimore County, and 75 percent became paying customers.

As more households have hooked into cable television over the years, cable providers nationwide have become more concerned with theft and repairs to broken equipment that cost the industry about $4.7 billion a year.

Cable pirates have been known to use hacksaws and sledgehammers to break into cable boxes or connect to the service on telephone poles or in equipment rooms at apartment complexes.

Others move into apartments where the previous tenant had an illegal hook-up, Mr. Janson said.

"People think cable is like telephone: If it's hooked up it's there for them," he said.

Of the 6,000 households checked in June, 14 percent were stealing a pay channel, such as Home Box Office or Cinemax, and nearly 6 percent were stealing basic service.

North Arundel will ask the state's attorney's office to prosecute anyone who has reconnected an illegal basic service, even if that person was warned before the audit started.

"The bulk of the people we're catching now are repeat offenders," Mr. Janson said. "Most people we catch on this run-through will be prosecuted."

First-time offenders found guilty of cable theft of service would be sentenced to six months in jail with a $1,000 fine; repeat offenders would face a year in jail and a $2,500 fine. Before October, the maximum penalty was a six-month jail term and a $500 fine.

The company won't know how much money it has lost to thieves until about halfway through the yearlong audit.

North Arundel's basic cable costs $22.15 a month, and premium channels cost $11.

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