The Silent Crime'
, .. KARL A. SEGER, Ph.D.
'. Corporate Consultants
Lenoir City, TN
DAVID J. ICOVE, Ph.D" P.E.
Senior Systems Analyst
Behavioral Science Investigative Support Unit
In 1981, FBI Special Agents armed prOVided information to law enforce 2,800 cases in 1 year and recovered
with Federal search warrants raided ment authorities that led to 27 arrests nearly $800,000 from guilty customers. S
several east coast buildings in search and 25 convictions. About 10 years Energy thieves do not restrict
of evidence of gambling. During the later, the annual figures reached 453 themselves to major utility systems of
raid, these Agents discovered an unu arrests and 447 convictions. Among metropolitan areas. Rural electric co
sual condition-the electrical power in those caught stealing that year were a operatives and smaller municipal sys
one of the buildings had been intention prominent lawyer, an electrical engi tems also report losses to thieves. In a
ally bypassed. neer, a State legislator, and a high national survey, a group of rural coop
The theft of energy is an economic school principal. The company esti eratives reported that they suspected
crime that adversely affects all utility mates that two-tenths of a percent of its more than 2 percent of their members
customers. Utilities estimate that 0.5 to customers currently steal power and of stealing power.
1.0 percent of all customers steal from that without an aggressive deterrent Residential customers are respon
them' and that their annual losses ex program, 10 to 15 percent would steal. sible for about 80 percent of all de
ceed $1.7 billion in electricity and $1.3 Consolidated Edison (New York) tected thefts, while commercial and
billion in natural gas.> investigated 88,942 cases of suspected industrial users account for the remain
New Orleans Public Service, Inc., power theft and caught 12,000 cus ing 20 percent. However, commercial
was one of the first utilities to recognize tomers stealing $7 million worth of elec and industrial users account for an es
its power theft problem and to develop tricity and gas in a single year.' timated 80 percent of all dollar losses.
a program to combat it. 3 In 1971, the Potomac Electric Power Company Usually, thefts by industrial users ex
first year of the program, the company (Washington, DC, area) discovered ceed $100,000, and in several cases,
20 I FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
utilities estimated losses of almost $1 will flow through the straps and the re
million. mainder will continue to register on the
When a customer steals from the meter. Unfortunately, some of the
utility, the company absorbs the loss thieves attempting to use this method
into its rate structure, making honest have electrocuted themselves. Others
customers pay for it. Theft of services have created dangerous conditions that
costs each customer in the United have resulted in fires.
States about $30 per year in additional Some enterprising thieves steal an
utility expenses.? extra meter and place the spare meter
in their socket for 10 to 15 days each
Committing the Crime month. Then, before the meter reader
Dr. Seger There are more ways to steal is scheduled to read their meter again,
power than most utilities care to admit. they put the meter provided by the utility
Some techniques are very simple, but back in the socket. Meter readers usu
effective, while others are sophisticated ally catch these people when they
and difficult to detect. The utilities, for make random checks of the meters be
obvious reasons, dislike publicizing the tween meter reading cycles.
methods used to steal power. Although Other offenders drill or shoot a hole
we understand their concerns, we have in the meter. They then use a piece of
two reasons for deciding to discuss wire or coat hanger to put a drag on the
some of the more common methods wheel. They remove the wire and cover
used. First, law enforcement may find the hole with duct cement and a splash
it difficult to detect and investigate a of paint before the meter reader re
crime without knowing the modus op turns.
erandi (M.a.) used to commit it. Sec Sophisticated power thieves either
ond, consumers already can acquire use elaborate bypass systems or
this information in a number of different tamper with internal mechanisms of the
"How To" pamphlets currently available meter. Usually, they will install a bypass
through the mail. s system at the weatherhead where the
Three of the most common meth entrance cable attaches to the house
ods used for stealing power include in and then runs to the other side of the
verting the meter, placing straps behind meter. By placing a switch on the by
the meter, or switching meters. Invert pass, customers can decide when they
ing most meters (turning the meter up want electricity to run through the meter
side down) will cause the meter to run and when they want it to run through
backwards, which actually takes watt the bypass.
hours off the reading. Remarkably, Customers tampering with the in
some customers get so greedy that ternal mechanisms of the meter can
they reverse too many hours off their simply bend the wheel to create a drag,
meters. Thus, they show a net loss from or they can tamper with the meter's po
one meter reading to the next. larity to accomplish a similar objective.
Placing jumpers or metal straps They also can modify registration of
behind the meter is an effective, though electricity by. placing resistors in the
dangerous, way to steal electricity. If meter.
done correctly, some of the electricity
March 1988 I 21
"Power theft affects all consumers because it results in
An assortment of various metal items used for
jumping electrical meter sockets.
Combating the Problem i1y access them. Many companies monitor all disconnected accounts, es
The first step in combating the move these meters to outside areas pecially if they disconnected a con
power theft problem is for utilities to de where they can Visually inspect the me sumer for nonpayment. Utility
velop and maintain system integrity. ter when it is read. In areas where personnel should drive past the house
Law enforcement agencies should en power theft has become a major prob at night several days after the utility has
courage utilities to seal all meters and lem, utilities can place these meters on disconnected the service. If they see
then inspect the seals regularly:- For utility poles high enough to be beyond lights. they may then suspect that the
this program to be effective, utilities the reach of the customer, but still eas customer is stealing. If a police officer
must securely maintain the seals. ily readable by meter readers. sees electricity being used where it has
Some utilities use plastic seals with se Utilities that closely monitor the been legally disconnected, he or she is
rial numbers and require employees to amount of electricity used by customers witnessing either the theft of electricity
sign for them by number. Others have can often detect a theft without looking or the receipt of stolen property. de
lead seals and use crimping devices at the meter. They can accomplish this pending on the applicable legal statutes
with distinctive patterns to close those task by having their data processing in his or her jurisdiction.
seals. The utility will know that some department conduct a comparison
one has tampered with the seal if they analysis of a current month's usage Investigating the Crime
find the wrong serial number or crimp with the same month of the previous Some utility systems have devel
ing pattern on a seal at a customer's year. If they detect a decrease of more oped an in-house capability by using
house. than 33 percent. they should inspect former police officers to detect and in
Some older homes have meters lo the metering system at that account.'o vestigate power thieves. Most utilities,
cated in basements or back rooms Law enforcement agencies should however, rely on their local law enforce
where the utility company cannot read encourage utility firms in their areas to ment agency to assist them with the in
vestigation and prosecution.
22 / FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Utilities often initiate probable that of a witness to what was found at Prosecuting Power Thieves
cause investigations after a meter the scene. If the investigation results in Law enforcement agencies are not
reader detects a broken seal or other prosecution or litigation, the utility will always aware of the extent of power
indications of tampering. The meter call the officer as a material witness. In theft and its economic impact, because
reader reports the condition to a super these cases, the customer usually de when a utility catches a thief, it prefers
visor or power theft investigator, who cides to reimburse the utility for the loss to give the customer the opportunity to
then conducts the investigation. At this to avoid court proceedings. pay for the amount of electricity stolen
point, some utilities will contact their 10 In jurisdictions where the utility and to avoid criminal prosecution. This often
cal law enforcement agency, and an of the police agency have decided to is an effective approach when dealing
ficer will accompany the utility prosecute power thieves, the officer at with first-time offenders. On the other
investigator during the initial investiga the scene of the initial investigation hand, dealing with repeat offenders ne
tion. usually will collect the photographs and cessitates criminal investigation and
If the investigator finds evidence of evidence. The utility investigator serves prosecution to combat the problem.'2
tampering, the area around the meter as a material witness. In these cases, Many States have laws that make
is treated like any other crime scene." the utilities want to try to prove the cus meter tampering and power theft
The investigator often prepares reports, tomer's guilt. They hope the judge will crimes punishable by a combination of
takes photographs, and collects evi require guilty customers to make resti a fine, imprisonment, or civil restitu
dence. The handling and eventual dis tution to the utility as part of the sen tion.'3 Most power theft cases are in
position of the photographs and tence. vestigated and prosecuted under two
evidence will depend on any agree A number of utility systems con general sets of statutes. Meter tamp
ments between the law enforcement duct their own investigation, and when ering laws deal only with evidence in
agency and the utility. warranted, take certain cases to their dicating that someone tampered with
If the primary objective of the utili local police department. Other systems the meter or metering system. 14 Inves
ty's power theft program is revenue re avoid criminal prosecution entirely. tigation under these statutes tries to es
covery, the utility will collect and They prefer to use the civil judicial sys tablish that the meter was tampered
maintain the evidence. The law en tem, when needed, to deal with their with and that the consumer charged
forcement officer's role, in this case, is power theft problems. with the crime did the tampering. Since
An example of one utility thief's method for
slowing down an electric meter by using a
screw driver inserted through a predrilled hole in
the meter glass.
March 1988 / 23
" the theft of utility services costs the United States over $3
billion every year . ... "
it seldom is easy to prove who was re tested and technicians who will pro sible. The prima facie clause has been
sponsible, some State statutes include vide the necessary testimony in challenged in a number of States.'6
a prima facie provision that assigns the court. Some States have upheld the clause in
presumption of guilt to the person(s) Account billing history-This would il the face of challenges, while others
who benefited from the tampering. lustrate the time the theft began and have ruled it unconstitutional. As a re
The other set of statutes ad the amount and cost of the stolen sult, many utilities have decided to
dresses the total power theft problem, electricity. Most utilities have the abil avoid criminal prosecution when the
including the dollar loss suffered by the ity to review each account's con question of who actually tampered
utility.'5 These statutes apply when sumption and billing records on a with the meter becomes an important
someone has tampered with the meter month-by-month basis to provide this point.
system and actually stolen electricity or information. Another problem in the criminal
other utility services. Again, some Some utilities prefer to use civil lit prosecution of utility theft arises in
State statutes include an assumptive igation when they have questions such some State statutes that require the
provision that assigns responsibility for as: Did meter tampering or power theft prosecution to prove the defendant in
the tampering and theft to the person(s) tended to injure or defraud the utility.'7
occur? How much electricity was not
who benefited as a result of the action. metered as a result of this tampering/ This can make prosecution difficult. For
Some States provide for awarding theft? Was the defendant responsible example, a customer moves into a va
treble damages if a utility wins a suit for the electricity used at this location? cant house or apartment where no ser
against a thief. For example, if a cus In a civil process, the utility does not vice is connected and then jumps the
tomer stole $1,000 in services, the accuse anyone of stealing. They simply socket to get power. Did this customer
court could award the utility $3,000 in state that the meter did not operate cor intend to call the utility, report the ac
damages. I tion, and pay for the electricity used, or
rectly and that the defendant is respon
Before a utility can file charges sible for the electricity used at the did he intend to steal?
against a potential suspect, it should location where the loss occurred.
gather the following as evidence, doc Recent Cases
uments, and appropriate statements: Problems in Prosecution The New York State Supreme
Witnesses-These include the meter In many States, a conviction for Court recently affirmed a conviction of
reader who initially detected the pos meter tampering or power theft can be theft of services by a corporation based
sible diversion, the utility investigator, based solely on a utility being able to on evidence of a damaged electrical
and the police officer who conducted demonstrate motive, opportunity, and meter that recorded a substantially re
the investigation. that the accused benefited as a result duced power consumption. '8 The court
Tampering devices-These could in of the tampering, regardless of who ac concluded that since only the corpora
clude straps behind the meter, wires tually did it. Utilities establish motive tion's employees had access to the
used in a bypass system, or other through the customer's billing records room housing the damaged meter,
tampering devices or equipment rel and the cost of the diverted power. there was sufficient evidence for a con
evant to the case. They demonstrate that the accused had viction.
opportunity and benefited from the di The Sixth Circuit of the U.S. Court
Meter report-This would show that
version by showing that the accused of Appeals held in a Tennessee case
the meter was operating correctly
lived in the residence or owned the that electrical service is a property right
when installed and demonstrate how
business where the theft occurred. and cannot be discontinued to a cus
the particular tampering method used
States having statutes that include tomer without prior notice or a prede
would have affected the metering of
the presumptive clause assume that termination hearing." Even though a
electricity. Most utilities have labora
the person "who benefited as a result city found that its meter had been re
tories where the meters can be
of the tampering" is criminally respon moved and replaced by another one,
24 / FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
the court held that the customer had help to combat this problem. Utilities Footnotes
'E. F. Gorzelnik, "Theft of Service Poses Major
sufficient due process rights to prevent have the responsibility to assess the Problems," Electrical World, May 1982, pp. 101-103.
termination of electrical service without extent of the crime in their service area 2A J. Donsiger, "The Underground Economy and the
Theft of Utility Services," Public Utilities Fortnightly,
notice. and to establish methods and proce November 22, 1979, pp. 23-27.
An investigation into the literature dures for identifying thieves. They must 3"Utilities Say 1 Percent of Users are Stealing
Power:' the New York Times, March 26, 1984.
also found two cases in which electrical also determine what their objectives will ·"Con Edison Reports $7 Million in Power Stolen in
power diversion resulted in the loss of be once they detect potential thefts. 1981, But Sees Improvement:' The New York Times,
August 24, 1982.
professional employee status. A board Some utilities conduct all of their inves 5"PEPCa Adds Investigators, Catches Many More
Thieves," The Washington Post, February 6, 1981.
of education in Alaska dismissed a ten tigations and f9110wup actions, 61982 National Energy Theft Survey (Boston: New
ured school teacher after his conviction while other systems call upon their local England Power Service, July 2, 1982).
7Supra note 5.
for diverting electricity. The Alaska Su law enforcement agency to assist them 8J. J. Williams, tron Gonads (Alamogordo:
preme Court upheld the board's deci in investigations. Consumertronics Company, 1970).
OK. A. Seger."Systems Approach Limits Power
sion to dismiss the teacher based on Since many utilities do not have Theft," TVPPA News, November-December 1982, pp. 10
their finding that the act constituted a personnel with the experience or qual 13.
lOSupra note 1.
crime of moral turpitude}O Another case ifications necessary to conduct a crim 11 Supra note 9.
12J. J. Gray. ed., "Theft of Utility Services;' Criminal
involved the disbarment of an attorney inal investigation, the potential role of and Civil Investigation Handbook (New York: McGraw Hill
convicted of theft of services by meter the police agency becomes very im Book Company, 1981), p. 7-126·8.
13Ala. Code §13·2·80 et seq.; Alaska Stat.
tampering or receiving unmetered elec portant. If utilities elect to conduct their §42.20.030; Ariz. Rev. Stat. §13·1601; Cal. Penal Code
trical service, as well as attempted own investigations, they will still need §499a; D.C. Code §22·3115; Fla. Slat. Ann. §812.14; Ga.
Code §26·1507; Haw. Rev. Stat. §708·825 et seq.; Idaho
criminal possession of a weapon." advice, assistance, and training from Code §18·4621 et seq. Iff. Rev. Stat. tit. 111 213
Courts hearing appeals on utility §381,382; Kan. Crim. Code §17·1921; La. Rev. Stat.
their local police agency. If they decide §14.67.6; Ohio Rev. Code Afln. §4933.19; Pa. Stat. Ann.
power service thefts generally found to work with the agency to combat the tit. 18 §3926(e); Tn. Code Ann. (TCA) §39·3·938; and
Utah Code.Ann. §76·6·409(1)(a) and (1)(b); paper
the terminology describing this offense problem, they must establish proce presented by S. R. GrUbbs, "Legal Remedies for Theft of
to be clear (i.e., not unconstitutionally dures for the coordinated effort. Electricity," American Power Association Legal Seminar,
November 12, 1980.
vague). A Louisiana Supreme Court Though the theft of utility services I·See. for example, Virginia §18.2'163, Tampering
case found no problems in the terms costs the United States over $3 billion with Matering Device; Diverting Service. The Virginia
statute does inciude a prima facie provision.
"diverting," "preventing," and "interfer every year, by working together utilities 15See, for example, Tennessee §39·3·938, Diversion
ing," which described how utility service and police agencies can combat this 01 Electric Power· Presumption 01 Intent to Delraud
Civif Action by Utifity. The Tennessee statute does
was obtained by a defendant. 22 The Su crime and help control the future cost include a provision whereby the utility can recover treble
preme Court of Delaware also upheld of energy to the consumers in our coun 16Paper presented by M. Banks, Current Diversion
that their State's theft of services stat try. [f~~ Training Manual, University of Florida and the
Sou1heastern Metermen's Association, March 1979.
ute also was 'not unconstitutionally va 17Paper presented by F. M. Bryant, Mater
gue. 23 Tampering, Power Diversion and Underbilflng, American
Public Power Association, June 11, 1984.
18People v. San Roc Restaurants, Inc.• 498 N.Y.S.
Summary 2d 481 (1986).
'.Myers v. City 01 Alcoa, 752 F.2d 196 (6th Cir.
The economic crimes of meter 1985).
20Kenai Peninsula Borough Board 01 Education v.
tampering and power theft have grown Brown, 691 P.2d 1034 (Alaska 1984).
to alarming proportions in many parts 21Richard DeCasare v. Departmental Disciplinary
Commiftee, 443 N.Y.S. 2d 375, 82 AD. 2d 716 (1981).
of the world. Power theft affects all con 22Sl ate v. McCoy, 395 So. 2d 319 (La. 1980).
sumers because it results in increased 23Wright v. State, 405 A2d 685 (Del. Supr. 1979).
A coordinated effort between utili
ties and law enforcement agencies can
March 1988 / 25