Electrical District No. 3 and the Maricopa Police Department are having a hard time keeping up with the pursuit and prosecution of people who illegally siphon power from uninhabited or soon-to-be-uninhabited dwellings.

The thefts are causing increasing problems for homeowners and renters, who get stuck with bills for the stolen power and face delays in having their electricity turned on.

Tony Solano, systems operations and metering manager for ED3, said the number of energy-theft cases recorded by the utility company in Maricopa increased from 39 in 2008 to 80 in 2009.

“In 2010, we are going to exceed that number, if we haven’t already,” Solano said, adding that the electrical district recorded 27 power-theft incidents in September alone.

“We aggressively investigate all reports of power theft, especially when the victim wants to prosecute,” said Maricopa Police Department spokesman Sgt. Stephen Judd. “We are going to charge the people that have pirated or stolen electricity with the appropriate crime based upon what has occurred.”

In many of the recent energy-theft cases, owners of vacant homes have hired contractors to work at their properties, and the contractors have illegally tapped into the electrical source.

“We suspect that instead of using a power generator or calling us, they just cut the seal on the meter and use the power to reconnect the service fraudulently for a short time, just enough time to connect their equipment,” Solano said.

In other cases, occupants of homes unlawfully access electricity after the utility company has shut off power to the dwelling. Under both scenarios, locating and apprehending the offenders can be difficult.

“If it’s a renter who has moved out of town, there is not much we can do,” said William Stacy, general manager for ED3. In the case of power theft by contractors, “We have to find out who
hired those people to come out and do the work,” said Judd. “Sometimes it is nearly impossible to track down that information.”

Solano said the electrical district can detect the theft of large or small amounts of power through its automatic meter-reading system.

“We compare one day to the next on the meters that are on the off cycle,” Solano said. “If they have any uses, we have somebody go check it out. In most cases, somebody has stolen power.”

Even if a seemingly small amount of power has been stolen, the electrical district is diligent about recovering the costs and catching the offenders.

“They think it is no harm, no foul, because it is a little bit of power,” Solano said. “But it adds up.”

Innocent victims

Power theft affects more than just the utility company and those who commit the crimes. Potential renters who want to move into a vacant home can be impacted too.

Such was the case for Greg Edmundson, an innocent bystander who got caught in the middle of a billing dispute between the electrical company and the owner of a home in Maricopa that Edmundson and his family wanted to rent.

“It was really frustrating to deal with the whole situation,” Edmundson said.

Edmundson, his wife Sabrina and their three children were preparing to move into a rental house in the city in September when the ordeal began He said he called ED3 a week in advance asking for the power to be connected in time for the family’s planned move-in date of Oct. 1, but when he checked on the status of his request on Sept. 27, he was told the owner of the property would first have to settle a $986 bill.

Edmundson said he was told the charges were related to the theft of 40 cents worth of electricity that allegedly occurred while the home was vacant. An Aug. 4 bill sent by ED3 to the homeowner listed $986.68 worth of charges, including a $500 energy-theft fee, a $150 fee for a reconnection at the transformer, a $25 fee for installation of a lock ring and a $136.28 labor fee covering two hours of work.

He suspects the electricity theft was perpetrated by a contractor who was able to bypass the meter and access power while working in the vacant house. Regardless of who did it and how they did it, Edmundson had to deal with the resulting delay in the reconnection of electrical service to the house he and his family wanted to occupy.

After a series of telephone conversations and visits to the Electrical District office, the $986 bill
was reduced to $408. Edmundson said the property owner refused to pay the $408, so he paid it himself and was reimbursed through a reduction in his first month’s rent.

In the end, Edmundson said that electric service was was not activated at the home until late on the day his family moved in. While Edmundson ultimately did not have to pay any extra money for the activation, he wishes he could have avoided the prolonged dispute process.

“The people stealing power should have had their own source of electricity,” Edmundson said.

Stacy said the utility company cannot comment on specific cases, but he added that the $500 energy-theft fee is almost always charged in cases of power theft.

“We try to tie it to the property owner,” he said. “Under our rules and regulations, we have a $500 energy theft fee that was approved by our board of directors.” Stacy said that the fee allows the utility company to recover the costs associated with electricity theft.

“Police have to be called. We have to install a lock ring. We have to go to court,” Stacy said. “By the time we get through the process, it adds up.”

Stacy said property owners can avoid potential theft situations by asking the electrical district to
temporarily activate power to a vacant home when contractors are scheduled to be working. He said if a contractor accesses power illegally, energy-theft fees will be assessed to the homeowner and criminal charges will be pursued against the thieves.

“ED3 is a nonprofit,” Stacy said. “Any power theft has to be made up for by the consumers. We take it seriously, and we don’t think paying customers should have to pay for stolen power. It is stealing from the citizens of Maricopa. It is also dangerous. People can be killed or hurt.”

Anyone who observes a potential theft of power can report it to the Maricopa Police Department by calling 520-866-5111. Callers also can use the police department’s silent witness hotline at 520-316-6900

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