Electricity theft: Dangerous trend that's costing honest Houstonians money

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by Jeff McShan / 11 News

khou.com

Posted on April 29, 2010 at 9:00 PM

Updated Friday, Apr 30 at 11:22 AM

HOUSTON—You don’t have to be a meteorologist to know that in Houston, the summers sizzle.

And as the mercury rises, so do utility bills. Staying cool isn’t cheap.

But while many Houstonians are struggling to pay for AC, some people aren’t paying at all.

"We can go to almost any apartment complex in the city and after looking at two or three buildings, we can find probably at least 60 to 70 percent of the meters have been tampered with," HPD Officer David Eagan said.

HPD said there are at least 10,000 people stealing electricity in Houston right now.

But since December, one by one, HPD’s Differential Response Team has been finding electricity theft suspects and taking them to jail.

Stealing power is a felony, after all.

In one recent investigation, apartment residents who were upset that they were about to be taken to jail for stealing eventually told officers they paid a man $40 a unit to stop their meters from counting kilowatts.

"At that point, many of the tenants said, ‘That’s the guy right there.’ It turned out to be the maintenance man," Officer Chris Schuster said.

That maintenance man, Raul Garcia, was found guilty and is currently serving a six-month sentence.

And while the stealing is bad, there other risks, too.

"Are you willing to risk your life just to save a little money? Because electricity, you can’t see it. And it’s as fast as light, and if you make a mistake tampering with these meters, it could be your last mistake," Eagan said.

Chris Tomme, who’s in charge of protecting revenue for CenterPoint Energy, said the dangerous trend of electricity theft is costing us all.

"It’s roughly about $6 billion in lost revenue nationwide," Tomme said.

And of those losses, approximately $14 million are being passed on to consumers in the Houston area.

"If you see any suspicious activity around the meters or anything, contact us," Tomme said.

Nearly every morning, a CenterPoint crew is dispatched to a police scene were electricity is being stolen.

The company checks the status of the electrical account, safely disconnects the power and – if it’s been rerouted illegally – shores up any dangerous electrical problems the suspects may have created.

Just this past Tuesday, police and CenterPoint employees came across two homes in North Houston off Tidwell where not only were the meters tampered with, but it appeared someone had climbed the electrical poles to tap into the power lines.

Schuster said he was amazed the homes hadn’t burned down due to an electrical fire.

So this summer, while the triple-digit temps heat up the Bayou City, many of us will be tightening our budgets to keep cool.

And while that can be tough, police said stealing power shouldn’t be an option.

It could land you in jail – or even worse, cost you your life.

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