Shocking lengths people will go to steal electricity

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The blazing summer sun and it is something we learn to live with in the southwest.  We get a little help from our air conditioned world. All that cool air, however, translates into some big bills and in the end, paying customers may be picking up the tab for electricity thieves.

Mike Mendonca, with Salt River Project, explains, "When bills increase you tend to find an increased number of people who are trying to steal power."

Mendonca would know. He is in charge of SRP's Revenue Recovery Unit. "Last year for 2009 we had about 900 investigations for power theft."

Those investigations were in the metro Phoenix area. SRP says there was $500,000 in stolen electricity last year. APS reports power theft cost even higher, since its coverage is statewide.

Nationwide that number is $6 billion, according to Center Point Electricity in Texas.

So how do the thieves get their hands on the power? In all sorts of ways, according to Mendonca. "The most common is a diversion of the meter where someone taps into the line and steals power that never flows through the meter."

"There are other ways that they find to manipulate the meter itself and so that it reads inaccurately."

"Someone will plug into their neighbors electrical so if they want to run some of their own if they want to plug in their refrigerator or what not or some device they're are using."

Patty Likens, with SRP, says sometimes it is not the homeowner who sets up the diversion, but a third party who knows how to rig it.

"We've had instances in the Valley where there will be a company that provides a service and while they are in that person's home they will offer to help them to steal electricity."

Neither utility takes these thefts lightly. Bill Bonds investigates utility theft for SRP and SRP has its own team as well.  "In the end," Likens explains, "the customers’ who are paying their bill will have to make up for the loss that we are experiencing."

Both APS and SRP say they will prosecute, and given the situation, electricity theft can be treated as a felony. Most importantly, someone trying to steal electricity can be hurt, even killed.

Pictures of some of the damaged meters and boxes are evidence of fires and explosions caused by tampering with electricity. Mendonca reiterates, "All methods of power theft are very dangerous."