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ANOTHER CABLE FABLE

CABLE THEFT IS A SERIOUS CRIME--BUT NOT IN TCI'S BOOK.

Hold on to your TV remote: TeleCommunications Inc., the world's largest cable company, is ready to grant you absolution. Recently, the Englewood-based cable giant--which has 11.5 million subscribers across the country--has been running late-night television commercials announcing that August is "amnesty month" for cable pirates and warning that in September TCI will begin its "house-to-house cable audit."

Believe it or not, lifting the signal for Beavis and Butt-head is a serious crime--or, at least, a crime that can carry a serious penalty. Under the 1984 and 1992 U.S. Cable Acts, picking up a cable signal without paying for it is punishable by up to two years in prison and fines as high as $50,000. And a Colorado statute passed in 1984--thanks in no small part to the heavy lobbying efforts of the cable industry--makes cable theft a class 2 misdemeanor, carrying a sentence of up to twelve months in jail or a fine of $1,000 or both.

The cable industry estimates that it loses $4.7 billion a year from the crime--about $3,108 a pop for every unauthorized access or descrambler box. In 1993 more than 1,600 people were prosecuted nationwide for cable theft, according to Jim Allen, who heads the Office of Cable Signal Theft at the National Cable Television Association. Their punishments ranged from "distributors and dealers getting several years of incarceration to probation," he says. But don't think you're safe just because you're not a major offender. "People who have just bought the things [illegal cable hookups] for their own use have also gone to jail," he adds.

Morgan Broman, public-affairs spokesman for the Federal Communication Commission's Cable Service Bureau, says cable theft has been "vigilantly prosecuted" by some district attorneys and that "technologically, it's getting easier and easier to find thieves. Those who are caught will be prosecuted."

According to Ray Slaughter, executive director for Colorado's District Attorneys Council, since 1991 at least 34 cases of cable theft have been prosecuted in the state: 23 unauthorized-access cases (tapping into a line you're not paying for); and 11 theft-by-connection cases (using a device to unscramble signals).

So it could be time to take advantage of TCI's amnesty offer, wave the white flag and get it over with.

Or maybe not.
Margaret Lejuste, TCI's government and community affairs director, says TCI has never prosecuted anyone in Colorado for pirating cable--not the big-time dealers who make the boxes, not the everyday Joes who tap into a tempting line. Never. And the company isn't itching to start.

"Amnesty month is just a ploy, an effort to get the people who are taking our service to pay for it," says Lejuste. "We don't intend to put anyone in jail."

So where did the cases that Slaughter cites come from? Slaughter says he can't provide further details without considerable time and expense, and calls to metro-area district attorneys' offices failed to come up with any specifics regarding cable thieves.

Lejuste thinks some of the charges might have been been filed prior to the spring of 1993, "when United Cable owned the Mile-Hi part of our territory." Erica Stull, spokeswoman for Jones Intercable, says her company has probably prosecuted three or four cases over the years. "But nothing near the figure of 34," she says.

Not only does TCI have no intention of prosecuting, it won't be conducting that "house-to-house" search, either. According to Lejuste, the company will be looking at apartments and townhouses, which are "more likely to have unauthorized hookups" because of easier access and more frequent turnover.

And there are no inspections or invasions to the process. Instead, "service personnel" merely tap into a box on the exterior wall of an apartment building or townhouse complex. Signals that are authorized will be on record, and any unauthorized signals picked up will mean, well, that TCI will ask the offender to subscribe. Of course, TCI can always disconnect the delinquents--which, if done in as timely a manner as their regular service calls, could mean quite a wait.

"It's really mainly and merely to clean up our records," says Lejuste. But that doesn't mean you're off the hook forever. "We reserve our right to prosecute if we find it necessary in the future," she adds. "Just for now, we want people to voluntarily comply.

 
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