It may not seem like a serious crime, but local officials and law enforcement authorities say cable theft in the Houston area is costing the city and county millions of dollars a year in franchise fees and sales taxes.
Time Warner Cable estimates 60,000 homes in the Houston-area are getting cable for free, a number that’s grown quickly over the past six years and is starting to hit the city in the pocketbook. City comptroller Annise Parker says cable theft revenues add up. “Since 1999, the unauthorized cable-connect percentage has nearly doubled. This translates to an annual loss of about $3 million directly to the city of Houston in franchise fees and sales taxes. In the end, the taxpayer and our communties lose,” she says.
Most thefts are relatively low-tech and involve residents tapping-into outdoor cable boxes. Others involve illegal converter boxes sold on the black market or residents who have moved into a home or apartment where the cable service hasn’t been disconnected. Harris County assistant district attorney Lyn McClellan says the law is clear. “If you are receiving cable service and you’re not paying for it, you are stealing cable service, you’ve committed a crime. It could be punishable by a Class C misdemeanor all the way up to a Class A misdemenanor carrying up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine,” he says.
A Time Warner Cable amnesty plan is underway through November 18th where residents who aren’t paying for their cable service can become paying customers with no questions asked. After that, the company plans to send out 130 auditors to check every cable tap in the area. Time Warner Cable’s Ray Purser says cable theft happens all over town and is not worse in a certain area.
He says stealing cable programming is not a victimless crime and hurts other customers, municipalities and the providers themselves. “A lot of people unfortunately do not think it is a crime because broadcast television over an antenna is free. Cable television, however, is programming that has to be paid for and a lot of it, especially the premium programs, is done commercial free. The only revenue that’s generated, the only tax revenue that’s generated, is through good-paying customers,” he says.
Purser says with the average cable bill between $35-55 a month, Time Warner Cable is losing millions of dollars a month to theft.