As energy prices rise, Washington area utility customers are stealing millions of dollars worth of electricity and natural gas, according to industry estimates. And honest customers are footing the bill for the rising number of thefts.

The new energy thieves are bypassing electricity meters with often ingenious -- and dangerous -- wiring, tampering with the meters to slow them down and even using bicycle inner tubes to run volatile natural gas past the meters and into their homes free of charge.

Last year, Vepco, Pepco and Washington Gas Light Co. discovered 2,023 such cases of "energy diversion" and many more cases went undetected.

"The incidents are increasing and we've been experiencing more losses," said William H. Blackwell Jr., a Vepco executive.

Nationally, the thefts may amount to $1.7 billion in electricity and $1.3 billion in natural gas a year, according to estimates made by Alan J. Donziger, and economist writing in Public Utilities Fortnightly last November.

While Donziger did not study Washington area utilities in particular, under his methodology the thefts in the Washington area and Virginia would total $75 million a year, 2 to 4 percent of revenues. That works out to roughly $30 that every customer of Vepco, Pepco or WGL would have to make up.

Local utility executives say they doubt the total is that high, but they will not say what their losses are, nor how many cases they have uncovered previously.

Some thieves find ways to keep the flywheels on their meters from turning, according to Ann Maynard of the Edision Electric Institute, an industry group. Others go so far as to take their meters out and reconnect the wires in a unmetered and unbillable circuit.

Other thieves are particularly clever. In one local Vepco case, a homeowner had bypassed his meter so expertly that an on-the-spot investigation yielded no obvious evidence.

But the company persisted, because an analysis of the house size and its equipment suggested that the meter readings should be higher than they were.

Vepco workers secretly put a hidden meter on an electric pole near the house -- a meter than measured only the current being used by that house.

The thief was caught, convicted and fined $50. In addition, Vepco sued him and recovered $1,156 -- the estimated electricity that he had stolen over two years.

"He had a very sophisticated method," said Blackwell. "He had gone in with wiring ahead of the meter and diverted this to his switchbox. He had a setup in the switchbox so he could be metered or unmetered." That way, if the thief knew the investigators were coming, he could fix the switchbox ahead of time so that everything would look normal.

That thief was prosecuted, but the companies generally confront the cheaters themselves, and the thieves usually pay up. "People listen to the evidence we have against them, the analysis we performed and the pay," said Larry Barrett, Pepco's energy management chief.

Vepco discovered 961 cases of energy diversion last year. It sued to recover its losses and turned 50 cases in Virginia -- one in this area -- over to local authorities who tried and convicted the thieves on misdemeanor charges. It said it does not know how much money it recovered. Nor will it reveal the name of the thief in this area, and a search through court records did not produce it.

Pepco uncovered 1,000 cases and recovered $250,000 on its own without reporting any case to the police.

WGL, meanwhile, caught 62 customers trying to bypass their meters and recovered $88,000 without reporting the cases to the authorities.

WGL spokesman Paul Young said the company does not regard energy diversions as a "major problem" -- perhaps because gas theft is so dangerous.

"An electric meter can be made to run at a slow speed but a gas meter cannot," Young said. "The person who does it is playing with his life."

Still, 86 of WGL's meters were stolen last year and the company is not sure why anyone would do such a thing. In mid-February thieves stole a gas meter from a big apartment building in Southwest Washington and fled, leaving an open pipe with explosive gas escaping.WGL workers gingerly capped it.

While the companies claim they are aggressively fighting the thefts, the lack of prosecutions seems to suggest otherwise. Donziger's article says that utilities that are "vigorously engaged in efforts to prevent and detect theft and to prosecute offenders" will experience less theft than those who do not.

To catch thieves, the utilities depend mostly on observations of their meter readers and on tips by neighbors and others who see possible thefts -- and who are angered at the thought that they are other honest customers may end up paying for it.

Energy theft used to be a problem only with residential customers, according to Vepco's Blackwell, but now businesses are doing it, too.

"We think some fast-food services, car washes and other businesses under pressure to turn quick profit [are stealing electricity]," Blackwell said.

But some attempts backfire, "One man had been cut off for nonpayment and he took electric cables and rehooked himself up to the electric wires," said Maynard of the Edison Electric Institute. "He was standing on an aluminum ladder and he electrocuted himself."