Published Sunday, June 10, 2001, in the San Jose Mercury News Utilities pursue power thieves BY DAN REED Mercury News Pacific Gas & Electric Co. refuses to talk about it, but experts say more than $100 million annually is stolen by thieves tapping into the utility's power lines -- a cost ultimately shoved off onto ratepayers . And given the sharp climb in monthly bills over the past year for many gas and electric users, California utilities are bracing for more of the often dangerous and costly grabs of power by customers who just don't want to pay. From pot farmers to crack-house squatters, from the well-heeled feeding free electricity to their spas and air conditioners to small businesses stealing power to run machinery, the problem of utility theft costs ratepayers as much as $4 billion a year in the United States, according to an international group that monitors such things. Overseas, the problem is often worse, with some nations losing up to 15 percent to 20 percent of their power to thieves, the group says. And the worst may be yet to come. ``As the utility price increases, the financial incentive for people to tamper with or try to reduce their electric bill through improper methods increases,'' said Wayne Wohler, a board member of the Western States Utility Theft Association. Under a rate increase approved last month, average monthly PG&E electricity bills are expected to increase 37 percent for the heaviest electrical users. Power company experts expect to see a rise in the attempt to steal power. Hundreds of millions As it stands, said Howard Dean, a former revenue protection agent for PG&E who now works as a consultant in the field, PG&E's estimated annual losses range from $100 million to $400 million, a figure confirmed by another utility insider. PG&E officials won't say how power theft affects its 13 million California ratepayers, or whether theft has gone up since the energy crisis began last year. ``We have found that the more stories that are done on this issue,'' said Staci Homrig, a spokeswoman for the utility, ``the more common it becomes and that puts our staff in danger.'' But Steve Moyer, chief of corporate security for the Sierra Pacific Power Co., which has about 35,000 California customers, says his utility puts theft at about one-half to 1 percent of revenue annually, from $4.5 million to $9 million. Sierra's residential rates have risen 20 percent since November, said spokesman Karl Walquist. Part of the problem in tallying up electricity theft is this: While experts know power is being hijacked, no one knows exactly how much. Cleve Freeman, chairman of the International Utilities Revenue Protection Association, a group founded in 1990 to stanch utility theft, said there has been no comprehensive study that takes in all of the thousands of utilities across the country to determine the extent of loss by theft. His non-profit group is seeking funding for such a study. ``The problem may be larger than we think,'' said Freeman, who is also revenue protection coordinator for the Southern California Gas Co. ``And we think it's significant.'' The association estimates nationwide theft at $1 billion to $4 billion. ``But it may be much more,'' he said. ``It may be much less.'' Catching the thieves Almost every utility has a group of power detectives dedicated to hunting down thieves. Most of them are in a department called ``revenue protection.'' PG&E has such a department, but won't talk about it. Others believe the public should be aware of the dangers of power theft and willing to report it when they see it, if for no other reason than their own safety and pocketbooks. The problem, authorities say, is almost as old as the invention of the light bulb. ``As soon as somebody started charging for electricity,'' said Wohler, ``I'm sure somebody thought about stealing electricity.'' Revenue protection experts were reluctant to point out how it's done, for fear of encouraging scofflaws, but did offer a few examples. And Moyer of Sierra Pacific noted: ``There are as many ways to do it as there are ingenious people trying to do it. Just last week, he said, the utility collected $2,700 from a customer who had tinkered with his meter to slow down its logging of energy use. That's one of two ways to steal power, says Dean -- doctor the meter in different ways to make it slow or stop. The other way is to bypass the meter altogether. Dangerous methods In all cases, Moyer said, ``it's extremely dangerous.'' Wohler said there have been two deaths in the Los Angeles area in the last couple of years of people trying to illegally tap into the utility's power. Moyer said his investigators have found blood on some of their damaged equipment, but have recorded no deaths. Injury or death is a risk not only for the thief but also for neighbors whose homes might be set ablaze by sparking connections, and for the utility worker who goes out to investigate suspected misuse. Utilities often use high-tech tools to uncover illegal users. Computer profiles of customers will send up red flags if power use drops dramatically. ``Consumption review histories, customer profiling, customer usage -- those are methods we use to detect it,'' Wohler said. For most utilities, tracking power thieves is left up to them. They try not to involve the police -- unless the crook is running a large pot plantation and using the power for its lights, or if it's a repeat offender or a ``fixer,'' someone who hires himself out to make illegal connections. Generally, they simply seek repayment. And there seems to be no perpetrator profile. ``I've dealt with theft of utilities with people living on the streets, and theft of utilities from people living in million-dollar estates,'' Wohler said. ``Some do it for hand-to- mouth existence; some for the fun of it to see if they can get away with it.''