Someone in Waverly is going to regret boasting about the free cable they've been getting for years -- especially since a friend just tipped off Comcast Corp. about it.
"They have been having this for a while now," the e-mailer alerted the company Tuesday. "Please don't tell them it was me who did this."
In Maryland, Comcast spends hundreds of thousands of dollars yearly to block theft. That's a fraction of the revenue the nation's largest cable television provider says it loses to cable piracy.
To combat cable thieves, Comcast technicians armed with portable electronic detectors are scouring neighborhoods, while the company scrambles its cable signals to foil reception.
But in the end, the old-fashioned, low-tech anonymous tip is still its most effective means -- motivated not by any reward, but by as much jealousy, revenge or double-dealing as you'll ever see on an episode of The Sopranos.
When it comes to stealing cable television, it's quite likely someone will eventually rat you out. It could be a friend, a spouse, a boyfriend or girlfriend or next-door neighbor. It even might be the handyman who charged you more than $200 for an illegal cable box. Or maybe it's the landlord who knows the cable was never turned off when you moved into your apartment.
"Revenge is sweet," someone in Salisbury wrote in another e-mail to cabletheft.com. The sender didn't specify his grievance but provided the alleged thief's address to the Web site, which forwards tips to the appropriate cable companies. "I have witnessed 2 cable boxes with illegal access," the e-mail said.
During a recent two-week amnesty period Comcast offered to residents from Baltimore to the Eastern Shore and Delaware, nearly 5,000 people called or e-mailed to turn themselves in -- or to turn in someone they knew. The response convinced the company to extend the penalty-free amnesty until Wednesday.
"It's costing us millions of dollars a year," said Brian A. Lynch, area vice president for Comcast's Baltimore region. "These are people who know it's wrong to steal a candy bar from a store, but think it's perfectly all right to steal cable. It's very discouraging."
Company officials say they would much prefer it if people would just fess up, no questions asked. Confess now, avoid prosecution later is the message the Philadelphia company is putting out in TV and radio ads, mailings and door fliers. But for those not sufficiently swayed, Comcast contends it will find them.
Starting in August, 50 cable technicians began roaming the region from the subdivisions of Baltimore County to the winding roads of the Eastern Shore. In a partial audit, technicians found unauthorized cable at 10 percent of 5,000 homes reviewed.
By the end of November, Comcast technicians will have opened hundreds of knee-high, dark green cable stands from Port Deposit to Ocean City in a thorough house-by-house investigation.
They'll also use an electronic device called the "sniffer" -- a sort of digital divining rod. It beeps when it detects radio frequency leakage from loose cable connections that are sometimes fused with tape, glue or even chewing gum.
"Someone tried to bribe me $100 once to connect them," said technician Rob Parks, 25, on a recent probe of the Chapel Valley community in northeast Baltimore County. "I tell them it's not worth my job. It's always puzzled me why people steal cable, especially the ones who live in million-dollar homes. I don't understand it."
Justifications for illegal cable use include diatribes over prices and cable monopolies. Whatever the rationale, the industry reportedly loses about $6.6 billion in annual revenue to cable theft, according to a survey by the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, an industry trade group.
Stealing cable has become an industry unto itself.
Surf the Internet and you can find dozens of do-it-yourself sites offering cable hook-up instructions and helpful advice -- it's not like stealing electricity, you won't get electrocuted, the sites advise.
Even easier is finding someone through the Internet who will sell you a cable descrambler -- the so-called "black boxes" that intercept cable signals -- for $200 billed directly to your credit card.
Owning a black box is not illegal, but using it to receive free programming is a federal offense. In Maryland, penalties for cable theft range up to a year in jail and a $10,000 fine. Comcast says repeat offenders have gone to jail. That might be why so many people eventually come clean.
"Cable was previously turned off, but basic remained," wrote a Northwest Baltimore resident in an e-mail asking Comcast to cut the illegal connection. "Please turn off before amnesty ends to avoid any criminal action. Please disconnect cable."
Guilt, as parents and pastors know, can be a powerful emotion, too.
"I am reporting myself," confessed an Annapolis e-mailer Tuesday. "About a year ago, I received six months of free HBO/Cinemax. When the six months were up, the HBO/Cinemax did not show up on my bill."