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Street Beat

The Fight Against Crime: Notes From the Front : Today's Pirates May Be Living on Your Block

September 29, 1993|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The offer was too good for any boxing fan to refuse--an absolutely free, commemorative T-shirt.

All they had to do was call the number on the TV screen during pay-per-view showing last year of the Chavez-Camacho fight. But the offer was made about a half-hour before the fight began. At that point, the cable operator had not yet unscrambled the signal for the pay-per-view audience.

Still, more than 150 calls requesting the shirt came in.

"It was a sting," said Woody Hutton, who recently became general manager of the Jones Intercable system that serves the Antelope Valley. He oversaw the T-shirt sting at the Jones system in Oxnard, which was experiencing major problems with cable theft.

"Anyone who saw that offer had to have been watching on a television rigged up with a black box device to get pay-per-view programs illegally," Hutton said.

Workers were sent to the offenders' homes to install electronic devices on the cable lines, preventing reception of pay-per-view and premium channel programs, even with a black box.

The Jones system is not alone in having to deal with cable piracy, of course. The National Cable Television Assn. has its own Office of Cable Signal Theft.

"We conducted a national survey," said Jodi Hooper, a spokesperson for the office, "and based on those figures it was determined that the industry lost about $4.7 billion in revenue last year."

Mike Chavez, sales manager for the Jones system in the Antelope Valley, was not surprised by that figure.

"People who would never think of stealing from a store think nothing of stealing cable," he said, shaking his head. He was in his pickup truck, on his way to a Palmdale neighborhood to check on some cable lines.

"This is something I take kind of personally," he said.

Chavez trains his door-to-door sales staff in how to detect illegal hookups while making their regular rounds. Reading from computer printouts, they are on the lookout for "formers," residences that used to have cable but for one reason or another have disconnected.

"Our people get to the lines to test them," Chavez said, lifting the lid on an underground cable box on the front lawn of a home. In the few boxes he checked on the quiet street that afternoon, all seemed in order. But there is hardly a day when his staff doesn't find at least one supposedly dead line that is live.

The sales people, who work on commission, don't get extra pay for finding "illegals." But sometimes, the knowledge that someone is an unauthorized user can be used as a sales tool.

"They go to the house and ask if they want to start paying for cable service," Chavez said. "Many times, they say 'OK.' "

If a customer does not want to go legit, a small metal fitting called a "terminator" is sometimes put on the cable line to prevent an unauthorized hookup. The device supposedly can't be removed except with a special tool. But when the controls get tighter, the cheating just gets more clever.

Chavez holds up a "terminator" recently found at a residence. "Someone drilled a little hole right into it," he said, "just big enough to fit a wire back into it so that they could hook up the line."

Black boxes--the electronic devices used to illegally get premium pay channels and pay-per-view shows--are harder to detect because they are inside homes. "We have no legal standing to go in and snoop around," Hutton said. "But sometimes, people who are outraged that their neighbors are doing this call to report them.

"They know that their cable rates would be lower if the losses to illegal hook-ups were not so large."

But even as dramatic a measure as a sting operation does little to stem the tide of theft. Many of the offenders eventually found ways to beat the trap put on their lines, Hutton said. None of them became paying customers.

The cable operator even had to send out the promised T-shirts. "Our lawyers said we had to do it," Hutton said. "After all, we did make the offer."

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