Electricity thefts surge in bad times

As the dismal economy spawns desperate measures, some Americans are resorting to a hazardous practice: stealing electricity.

Many utilities say energy theft has risen sharply during the economic downturn. Culprits include residential customers whose power is turned off when they fall behind on their bills and small businesses struggling to keep their doors open.

They're using a wide array of tactics. Some run wires from utility lines directly into a circuit-breaker panel, bypassing the electric meter. Others attach cables on either side of a meter, swipe meters from vacant houses when theirs are removed or tamper with meters to lower their electric bills.

"We're finding more and more people are … stealing electricity because of the poor economy," says John Hammerberg, investigations supervisor for Tampa Electric in Florida.

American Electric Power has investigated 3,196 cases of theft in January and February, a 27% jump over the year-ago period, says AEP spokesman Pat Hemlepp. The company serves Rust Belt states hit hard by layoffs, such as Michigan, Indiana and Ohio.

In Philadelphia, of 14,000 customers whose service was turned off in early 2008, 30% were illegally using electricity late last year, utility PECO says.

Customers have stolen power for decades, costing utilities 1% to 3% of revenue — or about $6 billion industrywide — each year, according to Electric Light & Power magazine. Losses are borne by other customers. Many thieves operate home-based marijuana farms that use lots of lights.

But the problem is mushrooming. In Pennsylvania, utility PPL says thefts rose 16% last year, with fewer drug-related incidents and more tied to service terminations. Power shutoffs across the USA doubled last year to 4% of home accounts, says the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association.

Meanwhile, consulting firm Detectent has identified a double-digit rise in business thefts the past six months, many by energy-guzzling restaurants. In Detroit, Donald Brant, 48, was charged last fall with meter rigging. DTE Energy says he helped about 50 downtown businesses cut their gas and electric bills by more than $1 million — or 30% to 50% each — the past several years.

The practice is dangerous. Touching a power line can burn or even kill an untrained person. In Philadelphia this month, an illegal electricity hookup in a row house sparked a fire that killed a 30-year-old woman and her 8-year-old daughter.

Utilities often learn of thefts from meter readers, neighbors or abnormal use patterns. They expect to detect fraud earlier as they roll out smart meters that can remotely monitor electricity use.

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