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This is real power grab


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."

Based in what used to be a brick garage near the Jones Falls Expressway downtown, the theft unit is secluded from other BGE workers in case an investigation leads to an employee. The one-story headquarters is marked only by a sign above the front door reading, "Through these doors walk the finest revenue protection investigators in the industry."

BGE draws its investigators from its own work force. Most are multidecade veterans - the 19 current members have 100 years of combined experience - and have to be skilled in all aspects of utility work. That means knowing how to set meters, bill customers, climb poles, work with bucket trucks and saw off tree branches, among other things.

But doing the job takes more than experience.

Kirby is not looking for urban cowboys. He also doesn't want storm troopers or hotheads.

But Kirby does look for people who are street-smart and aggressive - they have to be able to work in cramped alleys filled with trash, mean dogs and meaner people. They also need to be cautious, aware that angry people will sometimes rig cinder blocks, trash and water above tampered power lines and meters to fall on an investigator's head.

"They can't be accusatory; they can't take it personal; and they can't get mad," Kirby said.

Add compassionate, friendly and patient to that list, Kirby said.

And each investigator has to be an expert at talking his way out of a jam and have enough sense to walk away when it's time.

Mike has had a gun pulled on him twice. He's been cursed at, spat upon and yelled at more times than he can recall. He's been propositioned by women, who don't want their husbands to know the power was cut off because they spent money on something else. He's even been chased up and down an East Baltimore street by an old woman who beat him about the head with a broom after he cut off her service.

Every investigator in the unit has his own tales to tell. Wendell, the unit's senior man at 58, had a flower pot full of dirt dropped on his head. Jerry, 53, who prides himself on being fair, said he once allowed a roomful of pool players to finish their games before cutting off service to a bar.

On a recent Tuesday, Mike unearthed all kinds of theft as he cruised city streets. At one home, he caught a family that had had its service cut off eight times for stealing power, each time using a different method. A business partnership renovating costly apartments on Park Avenue used machined copper bars jammed into the meter.

"I ain't got your meter; you did not see no meter there last night," one woman yelled when Mike walked up to the back of a house in the 2700 block of Tivoly Ave. in Northeast Baltimore. He had been there the night before.

"I got to have that meter, baby," Mike answered politely, soothingly. "You can't hold my meter hostage."

He knew she had it. She had told him so the week before, he said, when she wasn't high. But this time she just got angrier. Mike pulled out his loop cutters - or hot sticks as they're often called - cut service to the house, promised her he would be back for the meter and moved on.

In the 2400 block of Barclay St., Mike yanked off 50 feet of wire extending from one man's window across the roof to his neighbor's power line, attached by a red plastic wire nut.

He had been there before and pulled off 100 feet of wire. The jumper cables the man had used earlier to steal power from his neighbor on the other side still draped over the roof. Now, the power lines on both sides were cut off.

Examining the bare, household wire that was rusted and burnt, Mike laughed. "We call this burn-your-house-down wire," he said. "I'll probably have to come back here next week, if not tomorrow. He'll do it again."

Mike's ability to adapt quickly has helped him out of some sticky situations, like the time he marched into an abandoned East Baltimore rowhouse to recover a stolen meter. A bunch of men were standing in a corner, and thousands of dollars in cash and drugs were on a table.

"Gas and electric man," Mike said without flinching. "I got to get my meter."

Their response: "You do what you got to do, and forget where you was."

"Maaannn, I don't know where I am now," Mike told them as he walked out with the meter.

Sometimes the job is difficult emotionally.

In the cold and rain, sometimes snow, when children are standing there freezing in the dark, "and they're probably hungry, too - it gets to you," Mike said. "But you also realize that if you left a dangerous situation there and the house burned down, and someone was killed, well, that would make me feel worse."

BGE will bill customers for theft, but it doesn't always get paid.

But for the frequent offenders - and there are many - utilities will prosecute.

At BGE, Wendell worked with Anne Arundel County police to arrest a 34-year-old Pasadena man in early April who repeatedly broke the locks off a transformer box and meter to hook up his own wires for more than a year. The man was charged with destruction of property, tampering with electrical conductors and theft under $500.

In some cases, the theft is so large that it makes the news, like the 91-year-old Utah man who had been stealing power since World War II. He was caught in February when he called to complain about an outage.

In California, drug enforcement agencies often work with electricity theft investigators because marijuana growers often steal high volumes of power to run the 1,000- watt bulbs they need to simulate sunlight.

"We're not so pretentious to say that we've seen it all," says Cleve Freeman, the chairman of IURPA who is also an investigator for a Southern California gas company. "But we have seen a lot. For years, utilities buried their heads in the sand. The thinking was, 'We treat our customers good. They treat us good. It's not happening because we have great customers.'

"Now when we hear that, we know that's insane."

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