Digital cable descrambler
The cable television thief had it so much easier in the 1990s. A simple set-top box, available for less than $100 in back-of-the-magazine advertisements, was often all it took to receive monthly programming for free.
Cable theft was everywhere, even seeping into pop culture. In a 1991 "Seinfeld" episode, Kramer talks his neighbor Jerry into getting illegal cable installed by two Russians. That same year, Homer Simpson landed a free hookup after goody-two-shoes neighbor Ned Flanders turned down a $50 illegal installation.
The free-for-all ended in 1994 when the Federal Communications Commission ruled unauthorized cable descramblers a violation of federal law. If caught, cable thieves paid. In 2000, seven customers of the TCI Cablevision of North Central Connecticut were ordered in federal court to pay $10, 000 in damages for theft of premium cable stations such as HBO and Showtime.
Those were the all-analog, low-security days of cable television. Now theft has dropped dramatically with digital cable's more sophisticated encryption that, to decrypt signals, requires a set-top box activated by the cable company.
"We haven't tracked it in years, " says Joy Sims, a spokeswoman for the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, the cable industry's principal trade association
With digital technology, cable companies can identify an illegal cable box in your house. They use other sleuthing, insists Larry Barile of South Windsor, who says Cox Communications shut down service to his condominium and four other units last summer during a search for cable scofflaws.
"The service technician arrived the next day and quickly resolved the issue, " says Barile. "He told me that Cox routinely sends out security teams to cut cables that are not properly tagged. . . . The rationale behind this method is that a non-cable subscriber that loses service won't report the loss but a legitimate cable subscriber will."
Then, says Barile, when a paying customer such as himself reports the outage, the service technician restores service and properly tags the cable."
Cox, at the time, didn't confirm Barile's scenario but didn't dispute it, either.
"The customer who reached out to you was inadvertently disconnected due to a mislabeled wire, " says Dana Nolfe, a Cox spokeswoman.
Barile wasn't convinced.
"Definitely not buying it, " he says. "The service technician sung like a canary. It's the only reason I know of the practice. . . . In my case, the cable wasn't 'mislabeled.' It had no tag or label at all — all within a locked box. They didn't 'inadvertently' disconnect the cable, they intentionally disconnected the cable and waited o see if anyone would report the outage."
Cable companies fear three types of theft.
> Active: Connecting to the cable system, then unscrambling the signal with an unauthorized decoder.
> Premium: Paying for basic service, then using a unauthorized descrambler to receive premium or pay-per-view channels.
> Passive: Receiving service without payment when the cable provider inadvertently leaves the signal on.
Most cable subscribers know their local provider can send commands directly to their box, whether it's for a reboot or deactivation. The cable company knows your set-top box.
If you suspect a neighbor, as in a condominium complex, of stealing cable, look for signs in your own home. Has your television picture quality deteriorated recently with pixelation or ghosting? Does the picture freeze briefly? Has your broadband speed slowed suddenly?
Ask your cable company to test the signal strength in your home, a service available remotely. If needed, request a technician visit to test and inspect your lines.
Federal penalties for simple cable theft start with fines no more than $1, 000 or up to six months in prison, or both. Someone trying to make money from cable theft faces up to $50, 000 in fines or up to two years in prison, or both, for the first offense. Cable theft is considered larceny by theft of utility service in Connecticut, with penalties starting with fines of up to $500 and no more than three months in prison.
Widespread cable theft appears all but dead, not even worth a punch line. Barile only wishes for more sophisticated sleuthing to detect scofflaws.