Cable thieves get grace period

Comcast offers chance to confess without being prosecuted

Anne Arundel

July 16, 2000|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel cable fugitives now have a chance to "fess up."

Starting yesterday, Comcast Cable has begun letting county cable thieves turn themselves in -- no questions asked -- without threat of legal prosecution. The company, along with the state's attorney's office, has vowed to hunt down illegal cable users who refuse the offer.

The 15-day amnesty period, which runs through July 30, is the first Comcast has instituted in the county since it recently took over Jones Communications, and the first in the area for years.

Comcast, which operates cable service in Anne Arundel, Harford, Howard and Baltimore counties, has reported millions of dollars in lost revenue each year in Maryland because of cable theft, pointing out the resulting losses to the state in taxes.

Nationwide, signal theft is estimated to cost the cable industry more than $5 billion a year, according to the National Cable Television Association. There are scores of Web pages dedicated to constructing descramblers and a history of cable workers illegally installing services for an under-the-table fee.

In Maryland, penalties for cable fraud have included fines up to $1,500 and jail time. The company is currently conducting a house-by-house audit in Anne Arundel to find illegal cable users.

Comcast has issued half-month amnesty periods in the Baltimore area, most recently in Prince George's County last month. But Comcast attorney C. Lynne Silverman said she did not know overall how many people have turned themselves in and declined to reveal how many illegal users have been prosecuted.

She said that during the Prince George's amnesty, nearly 100 people turned themselves in during an audit of about 3,000 houses. She said the company had identified more than 500 houses in that county receiving unauthorized cable and warned that those who did not contact the cable company "were taking a risk."

Cable theft is particularly rampant in northern Anne Arundel, a Comcast representative said.

"Comcast has technology available where they are able to determine what services should or should not be at a particular residence," Silverman said.

Frank R. Weathersbee, Anne Arundel state's attorney, has said he views illegal cable use as seriously as any other theft.

"The state's attorney's office takes the problem of cable theft very seriously and understands the effect cable theft has on lost revenue to our counties and state," he wrote in a statement.

Neither of the state's attorney's offices in Baltimore County and Prince George's County could say how many people have been prosecuted for cable theft.

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