This is real power grab

Danger: Those who steal electricity risk getting caught, or getting electrocuted. But nothing seems to reduce their numbers.

May 13, 2001|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

There are two little-known facts about electricity: People steal it. All the time.

There are lots of different ways to pinch it. The more sophisticated thieves tunnel underground for a hookup to the power grid. The risk-takers run household wire over rooftops to a neighbor's line. Many use jumper cables. Some drill a tiny hole in the meter; some steal a meter; and the not-so-swift ones just stick a fork into it, literally. Anything to make a connection. Never mind that it's illegal and dangerous.

To stop them, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s power police - known more politely as revenue protection investigators - patrol the metro area in search of their elusive and often stubborn adversaries who are young, old, male, female, rich and poor.

And predictions are that in a climate of deregulation and possibly higher prices and regional shortages, electricity theft will increase.

"It's a worldwide problem," said John S. Kirby, supervisor of BGE's revenue protection unit. "It's not a Maryland problem. It's not a Baltimore problem. It's an everywhere problem."

"Little old ladies steal; little kids steal, and so do homeless people, homeowners, businesses and everyone else who believes electricity should be free," he said. "It crosses all boundaries. Some do it out of desperation, some for the thrill. But this isn't like stealing cable. Cable can't kill you."

Theft of electricity adds up to about $4 billion a year in losses for utilities nationwide, more than the losses from bank robberies or shoplifting, according to industry estimates. In less-developed countries, it can be epidemic.

The government in Pakistan deployed 25,000 army troops to read meters, charge offenders and collect payment after theft became widespread two years ago. In Kenya, more than 700 people were arrested in late 1999 when the utility, bleeding millions of shillings from theft, started cracking down.

In the United States, utility investigators started the International Utility Revenue Protection Association in 1990 to begin monitoring the bad behavior. Representing 400 utilities worldwide, IURPA members often tip off one another to books or Web sites that offer instructions and even diagrams on how to pinch power, and they surf chat rooms in the hopes of catching a thief.

How-to directions available at the click of a mouse are not good news for 56-year-old Mike, a tall, lanky Virginia native who began his BGE career as a meter reader 32 years ago. He joined the company's revenue protection unit when it was created in 1995. As it stands now, Mike and the 18 other men in the unit - all of whom requested that their last names not be used for fear of retribution from angry perpetrators - are busy these days.

Each investigator handles five to 25 cases a day in Baltimore and the five surrounding counties BGE serves. Many cases are reported by BGE field workers, but a good number come through the company's 24-hour theft hot line. The snitches frequently are angry girlfriends, landlords who want to get rid of tenants or neighbors who are outraged that they're paying bills but the guy next door isn't.

Utilities have other methods of detecting theft, such as computers that track irregular increases or decreases of monthly power usage. But to physically cut off power, a company needs people such as Mike.

"You've got to keep three eyes open and all four ears listening because these people can hold grudges," said Mike, who works some of the worst and best city neighborhoods armed with a cell phone, a two-way Motorola radio, handsaws, drills, bolt cutters, seals and extra meters. "Some are friendly; some are not. They're not angry at you. They're angry at the company and the world. I do whatever is necessary to make things safe."

BGE estimates that it loses millions of dollars a year to theft, but the company said it can't determine the exact amount. Some theft is never discovered, BGE said, and it's difficult to separate how much is stolen from how much is never paid for.

There are also no statistics on how many people die or get severely burned from electricity theft - after all, such activity is not the first thing injured parties volunteer at hospitals. But a good clue for investigators that someone was probably hurt in a theft attempt are scorch marks around a meter. Fatalities can occur from jolts as low as 24 volts. Home meters typically carry a load of about 240 volts.

But a surprising number of people are quite adept.

"People are smarter than you think. I've got three or four people I'd recommend to the company to give them a job; that's how good they are," said Mike. "If they would use some of their ingenuity and put it to work, they'd make a lot of money. But they will do anything to get electricity and gas illegally. What they forget is that they're endangering themselves and their neighbors."

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