Comcast plans crackdown on illegal cable viewers 10,000 to 15,000 homes are stealing services in area, company says

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Television is full of cop shows. And coming to a Comcast Cablevision-equipped set near you is "Good Cop, Bad Cop."

Beginning today, Comcast will offer a monthlong amnesty to what it says are 10,000 to 15,000 local households that are stealing cable service. After that, they say, they're coming to get you -- and have new technology to help them do it.

"After this is over, we're launching an all-out blitz on this," said Jaye Gamble, Comcast's area vice president for Maryland.

Comcast says cable theft is a recurring problem, but one that is much smaller than before its last amnesty program in 1992. Back then, the company said it was losing $7 million to $10 million a year in revenue to cable thieves. Now, it says the figure is about $3 million to $5 million.

"We believe cable thievery accounts for as much as 3 to 5 percent of cable subscribers," company spokesman David Nevins said. "Cable theft is one of those issues, like minor shoplifting, that people kind of still pride themselves on being able to get away with. They don't always look at it as a violation of the law so much as putting something over on the big bad cable company."

Comcast serves about 300,000 accounts in Baltimore, Howard and Harford counties, claiming that it is in about 65 percent of all homes in the parts of those counties it serves.

It's hard to get up-to-date information that shows whether Comcast's experience is better or worse than the industry average.

The National Cable Television Association said its most recent survey of cable theft came out in 1992. The trade group estimated that about 11 percent of cable service was filched in 1991, costing the industry an estimated $4.7 billion in revenue, not counting pirated pay-per-view programs.

But the association also said only about 2,000 cable theft cases were prosecuted last year, a figure it said was up 25 percent from 1993.

Local and state officials said no formal statistics are kept on cable theft prosecutions in Maryland, though there have been a handful of cases. Comcast said people prosecuted after the 1992 amnesty paid a total of more than $2,000 in restitution, and one served 30 days in jail.

Maryland's cable theft law was significantly toughened in 1992 when the General Assembly passed a law initially drafted by Comcast attorneys. It provides for up to five years' imprisonment and a $5,000 fine for offenders who, for a fee, help others illegally connect to cable. First-time cable thieves who hook themselves up can get up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine; second-time offenders, a year in jail and $2,500.

Nevins said the new crackdown coincides with Comcast's $100 million drive to replace the cable in its local systems with fiber optic cable. Partly, the installation crews stumbled onto evidence of a lot of illegal connections while installing the new lines, he said, and partly Comcast is looking to protect its investment.

Gamble said the new system's software makes it easier for Comcast to scramble signals -- a deterrent especially to people who have basic cable legally but are helping themselves to premium channels -- and also makes it easier for Comcast to detect clues of theft without on-site inspections.

Until now, most theft detection has come during audits, which have been held intermittently.

Nevins said Comcast will run an audit during November and December in an attempt to track down people who have not come forward during the amnesty.

Nevins said 10,000 people turned themselves in during the 1992 amnesty. About half decided to begin paying for cable service and the other half allowed the company to cut off the signal to their televisions.

Pub Date: 10/01/96

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