Comcast lets cable pirates off the hook Firm offers amnesty to TV thieves who turn themselves in

Deal off the table April 7

10,000 cheaters found

company vows to get tough after deadline


March 09, 1998|By Mark Ribbing | Mark Ribbing,SUN STAFF

If you're stealing cable service, Comcast Cablevision has a deal for you.

The company is kicking off an amnesty period today for people who pilfer its programming. Under the terms of the amnesty, any resident of Comcast's service area -- Baltimore, Howard and Harford counties -- who is pirating cable can call the company and either begin paying for service or have it disconnected, no questions asked.

People who take advantage of the amnesty won't be prosecuted under Maryland's cable theft law, which levies prison terms of up to five years and fines of as much as $5,000.

"We've decided to give these cable thieves the opportunity to become good, paying customers," said Jaye Gamble, Comcast area vice president.

Once the amnesty ends April 7, Comcast plans to crack down. The company, which has 300,000 customers, said that it has found more than 10,000 channel cheaters during a six-month electronic audit, and that those who don't turn themselves in during the amnesty are going to have their names turned over to law enforcement officials.

Gamble said the auditing process was made easier by a recent $100 million fiber-optic upgrade, but he said that project was not motivated by a desire to improve monitoring. "The upgrade was to provide better services," he said.

The electronic audit will continue after the amnesty.

This is not the first time Comcast has offered its Baltimore-area customers amnesty. During campaigns in 1992 and 1996, more than 11,000 illegal users turned themselves in, of whom about 6,000 became paying customers and 5,000 had their service disconnected.

Gamble did not specify how much cable theft costs Comcast, except to say the toll was in the millions of dollars. He said the crime costs Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties combined about $1 million each year in lost franchise fees.

According to the National Cable Television Association, signal theft costs the cable industry more than $5 billion each year in unrealized revenue. This does not include pay-per-view channel theft, which is extremely difficult to trace.

Staci Pittman, assistant director of the NCTA's Office of Cable Signal Theft in Washington, said amnesty can be a useful weapon for cable companies.

"It can be effective as long as they follow up," she said. "It's a good educational tool to let people know they're serious about going after cable thieves."

Howard Merker, deputy state's attorney for Baltimore County, said his office supports Comcast's plan. "We have no objection to their offering an amnesty program. We have always deferred to them if they have wanted to do it."

The Baltimore area's other major cable provider, Tele-Communications Inc., takes a different approach to amnesty.

TCI's illegal-use problem is quite severe. According to company spokesman Marvin Wamble, roughly one-fourth of the nonsubscribing homes in TCI's Baltimore city service area are getting unauthorized cable service. That amounts to more than 46,000 households.

As a matter of course, TCI offers first-time illegal users an opportunity to pay up or disconnect without punishment. "For us, amnesty is an ongoing situation," Wamble said, adding that repeat offenders may be prosecuted.

Upon hearing about TCI's practice, Comcast's Gamble said, "We do not have an ongoing policy of amnesty. This is a periodic thing. After April 7, this is not something we're going to extend to a customer. "The next opportunity may not come for another two or three years."

Pub Date: 3/09/98

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