Cable tracks thieves

March 28, 1994|By Ed Brandt | Ed Brandt,Sun Staff Writer

In the endless cat-and-mouse game between cable TV companies and cable thieves, it's hard to tell who has the upper hand.

On one side is a multibillion-dollar industry, with 58 million households hooked up nationwide.

On the other are amateur electronics dabblers, mail order houses, small businesses and an ugly new player -- drug gangs using their networks of junkies to steal cable TV equipment.

The cable TV industry has armed itself with magic bullets, terminators, sniffers, snitches, private investigators and sting operations to fight this array, and is backed by the FBI and local police departments.

Matched against these weapons are illegal computer chips called "snooper stoppers," designed to thwart detection, electronics wizards known as "chippers" who convert computer chips into illegal receivers, and a host of clever and not-so-clever minds intent on stealing cable signals.

Says Dennis Seymour, whose private investigation company in Annapolis is employed by Comcast Cable of Baltimore County: "The cable thieves are getting more sophisticated, but we're staying ahead of them."

Or are they? The National Cable Television Association estimates that in 1993 the industry lost $4.7 billion, or about 10 percent, in uncollected fees to cable pirates, a figure that infuriates the cable industry.

"We're going to rid the system of cable thieves," says David Nevins, a spokesman for Comcast, which has 250,000 subscribers in Baltimore, Howard and Harford counties.

CCable theft in its simplest form is an illegal hookup, a tap into a cable line that brings service into a home or business. But the advent of "addressable" converter boxes that can be modified illegally to descramble premium channels has made policing more difficult.

Comcast expects to finish surveying its system for the easily recognized illegal hookups this spring. Tracking down illegal descramblers in the converter boxes, however, requires some ingenuity and a bit of humor.

The sting

For instance, Comcast of Philadelphia ran a sting to catch owners of illegally modified converters during an HBO broadcast of a Michael Jackson special.

"We aimed our stings at males at first," says Phil Cochetti, the system's security chief. "We used major fights and other sports and got practically no response. Then we decided to target youngsters and women with the Michael Jackson show and got 6,500 calls on one day."

Philadelphia Comcast offered free Michael Jackson T-shirts and hats and jiggled its system so that only watchers with illegal descramblers could read the offer on their screens.

The company picked 20 cases from among the people who called in for their free gifts, sued for damages and collected an average of $2,300 from each, Mr. Cochetti says.

Comcast of Baltimore County, like many cable companies nationally, increased its policing efforts once it learned of the losses it was sustaining.

It has spent more than $1 million on lawyers and investigators and has prosecuted more than 300 cases against cable thieves. It has 20 more cases ready for court before July. Comcast bears the expense of the investigative work, then turns the evidence over to local prosecutors.

Says one defendant, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, "I didn't think it was that big a deal, but now I do. I guess I thought I was being cute."

An Essex man is serving a six-month jail sentence for selling illegal hookups, and Comcast is suing a Dundalk businessman for $150,000, claiming that he sold cable equipment for illegal purposes. The man also is awaiting trial on 67 criminal counts of cable fraud.

State and local prosecutors have actively supported cable TV companies, in part because cable theft costs the government money. Baltimore County gets 5 percent of all cable fees -- standard for the industry -- and collected $3.5 million last year.

The state gets 10 percent of pay-per-view fees, plus sales tax on the purchase of equipment by the cable companies. That was worth $1.9 million last year.

To help cable companies get convictions, the General Assembly tightened cable theft laws in 1992. The law now provides up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine for those who illegally connect customers to cable as a business venture. First-time cable thieves who hook themselves up can get up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

The legislature also shifted the burden of proof to make convictions easier to obtain.

Previously, a cable company had to prove that a person with illegal service actually intended to steal it. That meant catching someone in the act of hooking up his home or business, Comcast's Mr. Nevins says. Under the new law, once the cable company catches someone with illegal service, the defendant must prove that he did not commit a crime to get it.

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