When a former installer who called himself "The Cable
Cowboy" bragged on local television that he'd never be caught doing illegal
hookups, he probably never thought that he'd be busted by the city.
But Cowboy operated in Chicago, the only city where the
municipal government -- with funds from Tele-Communications Inc. and support from Prime
Cable -- hunts down and prosecutes cable pirates. Officials there are so pleased with the
results that they said they will share their information with other cities.
"We'll share with any city if someone
doesn't want to start from scratch," said Joyce Gallagher, cable administrator
for the city.
Gallagher estimated that there were 100,000 illegal hookups
in the city before the residential portion of the effort was launched as a pilot program
last December (the commercial program had already been launched).
Besides cutting off the signal thieves, Gallagher made it
clear that she wanted the installers busted, too. She contacted the state's attorney
general, who agreed to prosecuted illegal installers as felons.
"We got a great response from [TCI president and chief
operating officer Leo J.] Hindery [Jr.] to that," she added.
The city's piracy-prosecution unit gets $133,000 per
year from TCI, which pays for its counsel, Marc Jaynes, as well as for inspectors and the
tickets that are issued. The city gets the fines, and TCI gets possible revenue from
customers who previously had illegal hookups. Prime, so far, has provided computers and
other equipment for the effort.
The city inspects the plant, documents theft and issues the
tickets. It has set up a department of adjudication to deal with the signal thieves
without clogging up municipal court. Those who are ticketed must show up and pay the fines
in person, and recidivists are prosecuted.
The city documents its cases so well that the unit has a 95
percent success rate in court, Gallagher said. Nearly 40 percent of those who are caught
re-establish their pirate installations, she added.
Signal-theft experts said cracking down on installers is an
important part of getting serious about cable crime. Typically, an installer caught
selling service illegally or otherwise violating company policy is quietly fired. It is
not uncommon for that employee to move on to a neighboring cable system until he or she is