Comcast digital cable descrambler
About half of all thievery involves stealing basic cable service by tapping into someone else's line or the cable connection on a utility pole, or by invading the pedestal box that controls entry into a subscriber's home, according to John Wade, Comcast installation manager.
A new problem arose recently with Comcast's introduction of the addressable converter box, which enables the company to turn DTC on Home Team Sports, Playboy and pay-per-view programs in a subscriber's home with a command from the central office.
In some systems, such as United Cable's Baltimore operation, most homes have addressable converter boxes. United Cable officials did not return phone calls asking for comment on cable theft.
A lively trade has grown up around the converter boxes and the microprocessor chips used to unscramble premium services. Consumers can buy the boxes in electronics stores, at flea markets, through mail order houses or on the street.
"Most of the converter boxes on the secondary market have been stolen, " says Mr. Seymour, the private investigator.
"We've even had people go door-to-door, say they're from Comcast, and tell the homeowner they need their converter box to repair it, " he says. "Some have fallen for it."
Mr. Cochetti, of Philadelphia Comcast, says profits are so high that drug gangs there use addicts to steal the boxes.
"They give a junkie a $10 bag of drugs in exchange for a converter box, have a 'chipper' put in a computer chip configured for our system for a couple of bucks, and sell it for $250, " he says. "They rob our service techs at gunpoint, steal from homes, infiltrate our warehouses with short-term workers and break into trucks."
Philadelphia police recovered more than 60 converters in a recent series of drug raids, he says.
Mr. Seymour says he has not seen drug ring involvement in Maryland cable systems but noted, "They have a different problem in Philadelphia because their system is almost exclusively on converter boxes."
Addressable converter boxes are not by themselves illegal. The problem arises when they're equipped with specially programmed microchips - available by mail order for $30 to $60 - that are used to steal signals.
"The illegal chip can give you all the premium channels, " says Mr. Seymour, who has four investigators on the road every weekday looking for illegal hookups.
Cable companies have the weaponry to challenge the illegal box. They can use a "magic bullet, " or sniffer, a signal that can be shot through cable lines to disable the illegal chip. But the illegal chip has to be located first.
"We can catch the illegal hookups outside the house, but, of course, we can't go in the house and look into the converter box without the homeowner's permission, " Mr. Seymour says.
"We have our ways of detecting the illegal chip, " he says, "and I'd rather not say what they are. The process is time-consuming and expensive, but we're doing it."
There are countermeasures to the detection process. Nuts and Volts magazine, an 80, 000-circulation monthly for ham radio and electronics enthusiasts, is full of ads that are quite direct about what is being offered, although most of them say in disclaimers that the equipment is not sold with the intent to defraud cable companies.
"Protect yourself from descrambler detection with one of our 'Snooper Stoppers' and stop the Bullet, " says an ad from Northeast Electronics of North Attleboro, Mass. The company will supply kits for up to $169 to anyone willing to assemble 150 components.
"You should have some electronics experience for the kits, " a salesman told a caller, "but I can assure you they're detection-proof."
Cable Box Wholesalers of Tucson, Ariz., offers assembled, "bullet-proof" converter boxes with descrambler chips for $135 to $355, depending on the manufacturer. A technician there asked for the make and model number of the converter used by the caller's cable company.
"That's how we can tell how to code your descrambler, " he says.
When asked if the descrambler was guaranteed to pass cable programs through to the TV set, he demurred.