Electricity theft cases on rise
By Kameel Stanley, Times Staff Writer
Some do it to skirt the system. Some do it to avoid paying their mounting bills. Some could be doing it without even realizing.
Whatever the case, local power companies say they’re dealing with an increasing number of people stealing electricity.
"They may be struggling. They may be trying to defeat the system. Who knows?" said Maxwell Wright, lead investigator at Progress Energy. "I’ve had some people tell me they’re in survival mode, and they’re out there experimenting."
Progress Energy has seen a 10 to 15 percent increase in the number of theft cases, Wright said. Likewise, Tampa Electric said it has also seen about a 10 percent jump in cases this year.
Between $1 billion and $2 billion is lost every year nationwide because of people stealing power, according to the Florida Public Service Commission.
But even more than the lost revenue that can get passed onto paying customers in the form of higher bills, investigators say there are huge safety risks.
"Ultimately, everyone pays for stolen electricity," said John Hammerberg, supervisor for Tampa Electric’s revenue protection department.
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When it comes to stealing power, there is no typical culprit.
Investigators said they see all kinds, in all areas, across all demographics.
Progress Energy investigates about 11,000 to 12,000 tips a year. About 3,000 to 4,000 of those end up being legitimate cases of theft, Wright said.
Some are committed by amateurs, the ones who will try to get their lights back on by jamming metal objects into a meter box or persuading their neighbor to share their connection.
Other times, as in the case of marijuana grow house operations, the theft can be more elaborate. Narcotics detectives discovered such an operation in January in an underground World War II bunker in Tampa. Electricity was siphoned from a nearby home to run the bunker, which contained a 5-ton air conditioner, a generator and lights.
Lately, Wright said, he’s come across a lot of renters who are living in properties undergoing foreclosure, so they stop paying bills or try to reconnect illegally after they’ve been cut off.
In all cases, he said, the theft has the potential to lead to a situation more serious than a large bill.
In January, for instance, authorities say a St. Petersburg woman’s months-long theft of electricity caused a garage fire that resulted in $8,000 in damage.
The woman, 51-year-old Queen Clayton, admitted bootlegging power by running an extension cord underground to her neighbor’s fuse box. She had been using it to power appliances in her home since September.
"There’s so many situations out there that are unsafe," Wright said. "Even when you know what you’re doing, electricity is highly unpredictable."
Hammerberg, who has been a theft investigator for 20 years, said people have no idea what they’re dealing with when they try to rig up power.
Investigators who go out into the field, he said, are outfitted in rubber gloves, steel-toe boots, flame-retardant pants and shirts and hard hats.
"These people are in there working in flip-flops and, given the right conditions, they could be electrocuted and killed right there," Hammerberg said.
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Power theft investigations can end in a number of ways.
Sometimes, after interviewing the suspect, the company will make arrangements to get the lost revenue back. Other times, the theft ends with the criminal justice system.
In Florida, theft of electricity is a misdemeanor punishable by up to $1,000 and a year in jail.
The person also is on the hook for whatever is owed the power company.
Progress Energy, Wright said, typically doesn’t use arrests as the first tool to get the money back. Hammerberg, on the other hand, said he testifies in court two to three times a month in theft cases.
"We’re a little more aggressive," he said. "The majority of ours do end up in arrests. We feel if you steal from us and are caught, you should be arrested."
But even with the recent uptick, both Hammerberg and Wright said they believe there is more money out there to be recovered. "We haven’t caught them all, but we know they’re out there," Hammerberg said.
Kameel Stanley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8643.
By the numbers
10 to 15
The percent increase in the number of local electricity theft cases.
11,000 to 12,000
The number of theft tips Progress Energy investigates each year.
$1B to $2B The amount of money lost every year nationwide to power theft.
1 year Jail time for stealing power, a misdemeanor in Florida. The crime also is punishable by up to a $1,000 fine.