CARROLLTON, Ohio — Every year, rural electric cooperatives across the country cope with thieves — folks who deliberately tamper with their electric meter to steal power. Not only is this practice extremely dangerous, it’s a serious crime that can result in hefty fines and jail time.
There have been numerous cases in which consumers interfered with the operation of a meter or jumped power to elsewhere to lower or avoid paying electric bills.
“We’ve seen people do some dangerous things — using knives, forks, magnets, jumper cables and any number of other objects to get around paying for the power they use,” explains Lynn Askins, director of Safety and Loss Control for the Ohio Rural Electric Cooperatives, Inc.
According to the Cooperative Research Network, a division of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, power surging through a compromised meter can cause an electrical catastrophe.
A short-circuit could produce an arc flash bright enough to cause blindness and powerful enough to launch fragments of shrapnel-like, red-hot debris. Serious injury or death from electrocution, explosion or fire often results from meter tampering. Only trained co-op personnel wearing protective clothing should work on meters.
Electricity theft is not a victimless crime. The not-for-profit cooperative loses revenue and expends resources to investigate tampering. These costs are then passed on to the entire membership.
National estimates vary, but The Washington Post cited revenue protection officials who claim between $1 billion and $10 billion worth of electricity is stolen from utilities annually.
Understand the law
Since August 1978, a revised Ohio law has covered theft of utility service and tampering with utility equipment. The statute provides that a person does not have to be seen tampering with their meter to be held responsible for such action.
In addition, in prosecution for a user’s reconnecting a device that was disconnected by a utility, such activity now is considered prima facie evidence the user intended to defraud the utility.
The law defines theft of utility service as a first-degree misdemeanor if the value of the stolen electricity, plus any utility equipment repair is less than $150. It’s a fourth-degree felony if more than $150, or if the offender previously was convicted of the charge.
Tampering carries similar penalties. It is defined as “to interfere with, damage or bypass a utility meter, conduit or attachment with intent to impede the correct registration of a meter or the proper function of a conduit or attachment.” Conviction of tampering can mean from six months in jail and a $1,000 fine to five years and a $2,500 fine. In addition, persons convicted must pay for the value of the electricity stolen and for any damaged equipment.
Anyone witnessing someone tampering with their electric meter should contact their co-op or utility office. Anyone caught violating the law will be prosecuted. For more information contact Carroll Electric Cooperative, Inc. at 330-627-2116 or visit www.cecpower.coop.