- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2002

Comcast Corp. said yesterday it would begin a house-by-house electronic audit of its cable systems to catch cable thieves, after more than 25,000 people in the region took advantage of amnesty programs in November and January.
Under the amnesty program, anyone in Comcast's Mid-Atlantic division who had been receiving pirated cable service free could call an 800 number and ask to have their cable removed, or become a paying customer, no questions asked. The Mid-Atlantic division includes most of Maryland, the District of Columbia, and Alexandria and Arlington counties.
Comcast, the third-largest cable company in the country with 1.5 million customers in the Washington area alone, said the amnesty program was its most successful to date. The company saved "thousands and thousands of dollars" from the campaign and added thousands of new customers, said Comcast spokesman Mitchell Schmale.
The company now plans to audit houses electronically to check for stolen cable connections, with the knowledge that about 5 percent of all people who have cable nationwide receive it illegally.
"We know that people are still out there, unfortunately," said Mr. Schmale, who added that the company would send out press releases and notices of prosecutions relating to cable theft.
"It does have fees and penalties in real court," he said.
Past penalties for cable theft have included fines ranging from $500 to $1,500, community service, probation and even jail time, Comcast said. Last June, a Baltimore man was convicted for stealing cable and sentenced to seven years in jail, with all but one year suspended. He was placed on probation for three years and ordered to pay a $400 fine.
There are no immediate plans for a cable amnesty program in Fairfax County, where Cox Communications is the primary cable provider.
Cox Communications' Northern Virginia spokesman Alex Horwitz said stolen cable has not been a significant problem in the county. But anyone stealing cable from Cox "can typically turn in their boxes at any time and receive total amnesty."
Mr. Horwitz said Cox does perform routine audits to check for pirated cable, but will generally not turn violators over to the authorities, particularly if they decide to become paying customers.
Comcast has no plans to lower cable rates as a result of the money saved from the amnesty program, but said the quality of service for paying customers could improve. Comcast increased rates about 5 percent throughout the region earlier this year.
Illegal cable hookups can create signal leakage that could affect the reception of those who use cable legally, the company said.

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