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Utilities increase efforts to catch power rustlers

Utility companies are on the offensive against power thieves.

Electricity costs have climbed steeply -- more than 200 percent in the last decade. Along with the explosive increase, set off by the 1973 Arab oil embargo, has come a dramatic escalation of electricity theft.

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Utility officials say that if not reducing theft, at least they are managing to stem its increase.

''The word is out. People know we're watching them,'' says Robert Stevens, assistant vice-president of consumer affairs for New York's Consolidated Edison.

Last year Consolidated Edison recouped $7 million through ''elaborate computer analysis and intricate surveillance methods'' and a corps of 140 people tracking down stolen wattage. Since 1979, when power theft reached a peak, the company has reduced incidents of theft by more than 20 percent (from 14,000 a year to 11,000).

But millions of consumers are still trying to outsmart utility companies in the increasingly high-risk stakes of power theft. As a result, power theft continues to burn a costly hole in utility company profits.

While usually associated with the poor, stealing electricity is also ''a rich man's game'' according to industry officials. ''Someone who would never consider stealing a loaf of bread steals from a large corporation -- and they don't think they're crooks,'' says Consolidated Edison's Mr. Stevens.

Small industries are often the worst offenders. ''To people who operate on a narrow margine of profit, such as grocery stores or restaurants, it's big bucks, '' says Walter Salvi, manager of information for Boston Edison.

He estimates utility companies lose $4 billion annually to theft in the US.

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''A victimless crime? That's ridiculous -- everybody pays for it (in increased prices). Cost of fuel is assessed against everyone and compensated for in higher rates,'' says Mr.Salvi.

More and more people seem to agree. Every time power theft is publicized by the media or customers are informed about it, there is flurry of anonymous tips, says Robert Oldham, who heads Florida Power and Light's (FPL) efforts to catch power thiefs.

To combat theft more effectively, many utility companies are installing ''tamper-proof'' locks on meters, using computers to detect suspiciously low or irregular bills, and tenaciously hunting and prosecuting violators.

Yet in Florida, power theft -- especially in densely packed urban centers -- remains high. Mr. Oldham estimates that 4 percent of FPL's 20,300,000 customers illegally divert the flow of power. This translates into $10 million to $12 million in losses each year, he says. According to Oldham, the company is only able to catch one-third of all thefts. But since 1981, FPL has been able to hold the theft rate to a steady 4 percent.

Not everyone tampering with meters is trying to cheat a utility. Oldham explains ''diversion of current'' can simply be petty mischievousness. He cites an incident where a wife secretly rigged the meter to prevent her husband from knowing she was running the air conditioning.

Of more serious consequence is large-scale theft, such as a case where a Florida frozen foods company avoided paying $250,000 in electricity fees.

If theft is proved, utility companies can impose a range of penalties, the least of which is denying service if the person refuses to pay up. Further steps involve prosecution with possible jail sentences of up to 90 days and fines of $ 500 to $1,000.

In Massachusetts, Florida, and California, payment of ''treble damages'' can also be demanded -- the power company receives full compensation and the state is paid twice the stolen amount.

Yet power theft is so widespread that industry officials say it's almost impossible to fully extinguish.

''Being realistic, if someone wants to get into a meter, they're going to find a way,'' says Donald Dassman, manager of meters for Commonwealth Electric in Plymouth, Mass.

There are 30 or 40 known ways of rigging meters, says one expert. ''All it takes is a very crude knowledge of electricity,'' says William Shula, program manager for the Edison Electric Institute in Washington, D.C. But the risk of either being caught, severely shocked or electrocuted, or of starting a fire by short-circuiting wires is dangerously high.

Though no foolproof method yet exists for stopping power theft, companies, supported by state penal codes, are taking a tougher stand. As Robert Stevens says, ''It's like a forest fire. You just want it out.''

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