An article last week on cable theft in Arlington should have said that 3 percent of the 78,020 Arlington households able to subscribe to MetroCable receive it illegally. Currently 33,129 are paid subscribers.
The owners of Arlington's cable television franchise, facing losses of an estimated $740,000 last year from cable theft, have stepped up efforts to stop residents from illegally tapping into the system.
Christopher Young, vice president of operations for Arlington Cable Partners, estimated that 3 percent of the 78,020 Arlington households subscribing to MetroCable receive it illegally. The 3 percent includes both those who break into the system from scratch and those who subscribe to the company's basic cable service and then illegally tap into one or more of the five extra-charge channels: Home Box Office, Playboy, Walt Disney, Cinemax and Home Team Sports.
Young said the cable company spent about $5,000 in tap audits last year and expects to spend about $25,000 in audits this year.
To conduct a tap audit, Young said, an employe goes into a section of the county with a list of area subscribers, walks up and down the street and checks to see which households have cable lines running into their homes.
When the employe spots a line running to a household that is not paying for the service, he will knock on the door and ask the homeowner if he would like to become a paying customer. If the answer is no, the company disconnects the service. If the homeowner hooks up again, the company will prosecute.
Several weeks ago, the company completed an eight-week tap audit of 10,045 residences and found that 566 or about 5.6 percent were receiving the basic cable service illegally. Of the households that were already paying for the cable firm's basic service, 188 were illegally receiving the extra-pay channel HBO.
Young said the audit was done mostly in the southern part of the county. "We concentrated mostly on multifamily dwelling units," he said. Of the 566 unauthorized connections, 46 households have become paying subscribers, Young said.
The company is reauditing the same households to catch people who have hooked back up. ACP has found that 18 people out of 570 have so far reconnected to cable.
"That takes guts," said Young. "You have to be pretty dense not to realize we have your number. They know we know." Young said that the firm's goal is not to prosecute thieves but to convert them to paying customers.
Arlington Cable Partners also uses electronic equipment to detect cable thievery. Company trucks are equipped with antenna that can detect improper cable connections. When this happens, an alarm goes off.
"With most of the unauthorized hookups, the connections are crude ones," said Joey Cundiff, chief engineer for the firm. "If the connection is not a good one, we will pick them up with a 'sniffer.' "
According to Young, if an employe on a routine service job is driving through a neighborhood and the alarm goes off, he can stop the truck and use special hand equipment that can lead him to the unauthorized hookup.
When this happens, the employe will confront the homeowner and ask if he would like to start paying for the service.
Nationwide in 1984, the cable industry lost between $500 million and $700 million in revenues because of cable snatching, according to Lynn McReynolds, director of public information for the National Cable Television Association, the industry's major trade association.
"For a long time it's been kind of cocktail talk," said Young, who believes cable thieves have tended in the past to brag about their exploits as clever, bold and not particularly against the law.
"I think that's becoming less and less the perception, though," said Young, who added that although the company has prosecuted a handful of violators in previous years, Arlington Cable Partners has brought about 15 cases of suspected cable theft to the police already this year. Since January, seven people have pleaded guilty to stealing the service.
Cable theft is a federal crime and against the law in 38 states, including Virginia, according to McReynolds. In Virginia, the maximum punishment for theft of cable service amounting to under $200 is one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
"People are being embarrassed and inconvenienced," Young said. "Less and less is it chic to steal cable."