The $6 Billion Scam:Adventures In Stealing Cable TV

Cable theft is a crime. I know this because my cable company is running local ads in my area that say as much. To paraphrase: If we forgot to shut off the cable service when the previous resident moved out of your house and you’re getting it for free, you are a low-down, scum-sucking, bottom-dwelling criminal, whom we are going to prosecute to the fullest extent of the law. The ad goes on to say that the cable operator is conducting a house-to-house audit, inferring that it’s only a matter of time before they haul your sorry self off to jail.

I’ve never known a cable company to get a technician to the house on a service call within 36 hours, but hey, if you’re filching a signal, they’ll make time. The significance of this does not escape me, especially now that I am a bona fide cable thief. I stole cable because my editor asked me to do it for this story. I suggested an alternative topic; perhaps a riveting analysis of newsroom workflow. (I have enough karmic debts involving Marlboros, men, and malt scotch without adding “cable theft” to the tally.) My editor then ordered me to steal cable, or at least try to do so. He agreed to post bail if it came to that.

The whole idea began with email. My editor and I both get about 300 emails a day, 270 of which involve losing weight in our sleep, refinancing at unbelievably low rates, impressing the ladies, eliminating bad debt NOW, and free digital cable TV at our fingertips.

The selected device of subterfuge was a digital pay-per-view (PPV) filter. I ran a control test of it one night when my husband and I couldn’t find anything of interest to watch on the other 200 channels of our cable system. We opted for video-on-demand, a rather generously named service that took a good 15 minutes to initialize, browse, select, and confirm. By the time I’d ordered Road to Perdition, my husband had left to get the laundry out of the dryer, so I paused the movie according to the VOD directions and went to help him.

When we came back five minutes later, the screen said that Road to Perdition had played. Thank you very much. $3.99. The cable company had ripped me off, so...

Life As A Cable Thief

8 a.m., Monday morning. I stand before my digital cable box with my instrument of revenge, the HPF-54-HR. The directions, typed on a 4- x 4-inch piece of paper, say to unplug the digital cable box from the power outlet, then disconnect the coax from the box. Then they say to “screw the filter into the end of the coaxial cable.” Then attach it to the box, power it up, and voilà! Road to Perdition, here I come.

8:15 a.m. The Road to Perdition is covered with snow. I have no signal at all. Hmm. The directions do state that “If your screen remains black after the cable box initializes, then this product will not work on your system.” OK, but I don’t have a black screen, and the box didn’t initialize, so on to Plan B.

8:30 a.m. Plan B is to attach the filter between the coax and the wall outlet. The wall outlet is in the corner near my 400-pound Conn electric organ. There’s enough room to reach the outlet, as long as I dislocate my right shoulder.

8:35 a.m. Power engaged. Remote, locked and loaded. Television switched on. Zip. Zero. Nothing.

8:45 a.m. Shoulder stubbornly yet miraculously relocated while removing filter from wall outlet. Must find pain medication left over from having wisdom teeth extracted. One is indicated, so four must be better.

9 a.m. Feeling much better now. Have not given up on the HPF-54-HR, even though it looks exactly like a garden-variety cable connector from Radio Shack. It came via first-class mail in a Jiffy padded #0 envelope, so it must be real.

9:10 a.m. Of course! The problem must be the VCR, through which the cable signal is fed into the TV via the TiVo, so if I attach the filter to the cable box and the cable box directly to the TV...

9:15 a.m. I will ruin a perfectly good manicure because the coax connection on the VCR was placed approximately 1/3 of an inch inside a plastic housing that makes it possible for only wood faeries to get their fingers in there.

9:25 a.m. Return from communal greenspace with wood faerie bites. (Obviously delusional neighbor inquires about “chasing squirrels.”) Must find disinfectant. Out of Bactene. Pimm’s No. 1 is 25% alcohol by volume. Administer orally.

9:30 a.m. Where did all these wires come from?

9:35 a.m. Decide HPF-54-HR is a scam, a gyp, a plot, a scheme, a flimflam, a...ZZZZzzzz...

Later That Same Day...

Eventually, I unhook every component in my self-styled home theater and start over. This time, I am successful. I have stolen Two Weeks Notice, with Sandra Bullock as the doe-eyed bipolar love interest of the theatrically challenged Hugh Grant, a movie that I would prefer to be paid handsomely to sit through. I am only out one TiVo and one VCR.

Something tells me I won’t get my stripes in the great fraternity of cable theft, which the cable industry estimates thrives to the tune of more than $6 billion a year, or around half of the revenues generated in 2002 by Comcast, the nation’s largest MSO. No, I suspect that figure would be far, far lower if the payoff for eight hours of wiring was a $4 B-movie. One source came forth who said he’d been stealing analog cable with a $50 black box for five years. I’ve known several people who moved into places where the cable was never terminated, and they simply neglected to mention it. And let’s face it, who really blames someone for not notifying a conglomerate to send a bill?

“Stealing cable is no different than walking into a convenience store and shoplifting,” said NCTA spokesman Brian Dietz. A lot of people don’t see it that way, because A) they tend to hate cable companies in general, B) television was free for 40 years, and C) cable theft devices are a thriving industry. Even though the sale and distribution of unauthorized descramblers carries a maximum fine and sentence of $500,000 and five years, these things are all over the Internet. A check on eBay showed 178 items for “cable filter.” A Google search for the same yielded 7,640 results (the first one a Yahoo Shopping site), “how to steal cable TV” came back with 73,200 hits.

If the HPF-54-HR is any indication, cable signals aren’t the only thing these devices filter out; there’s a bit of legal screening going on as well. The directions to the HPF-54-HR include this note: “Please be sure to contact your cable provider to let them know you have placed an order, otherwise, they will not know to charge your account.”

So now I must contact my cable provider to see if the HPF-54-HR actually filtered out the return signal that tells them to bill me, and I’ll be hog-tied and deep-fried if I’m going to start with the local office.

I went there once to drop off a cable modem. When the linebacker, er, lady, behind the counter finally had the time to look up at me, she said, “How much do you owe?” Like I’m going to tell someone who already assumes I’m a thief that I’ve ripped off cable service in the name of journalism.

I call corporate. It seems the HPF-54-HR did work, but when I removed it, the orders showed up in the next daily audit of the cable box, where they’re cached indefinitely. In other words, pay them $4 now, or possibly get slammed with a whole bunch of $4 charges later.

But there are, in theory, ways around this. This statement is from one of the many websites that sell the filter:

If you are using this device as a testing tool and test a pay-per-view service, the box’s memory must be cleared before removing filter. This can be achieved in several ways. Since there are so many different types of boxes I do not know the reboot procedures for your box. Read your box’s manual, check the manufacturer’s website or contact the manufacturer for reboot/reset procedures. Also, unplugging the receiver for an extended period of time works sometimes also. The filter prevents the box from calling in the order to the cable company, but the receiver will store it and if you remove the filter before clearing memory, it will be called in.

So far, I am still at large. I am also realizing I didn’t get the bail agreement on paper. My corporate contact at the cable company assures me they are more interested in making paying customers out of non-payers. I appreciate that, but I’m thinking the FBI is more motivated by statute 553 of the U.S. Telecom Act. Statute 553 states that anyone stealing all or part of a cable signal “shall be fined not more than $1,000 or imprisoned for not more than six months, or both.”

Please forward cigarettes and chocolates to the Women’s Federal Correctional Facility in Alderson, WV, where I will use them to bargain for my life.

Deborah D. McAdams is a contributing editor. She can be reached at

DBS Gets Serious About Theft

Satellite providers are no better off than cable operators when it comes to signal theft. Estimates on programmer losses alone range as high as $1 billion, but DBS industry officials say such figures are plucked out of the air. Signal theft ranges from a single movie (as in our own erstwhile attempt at piracy) to one or more premium channels or signals.

“In point of fact, how would you know?” said DirecTV spokesman Robert Mercer. “You can really only hazard a guess on it...we confiscate contraband and seize business records, so we can see a snapshot of how many people are buying these devices, but that’s only from a handful of raids.”

What is substantiated is that, from those handful of raids, DirecTV has filed 8,700 civil suits against individuals for stealing signals, each one carrying a potential $10,000 award for the DBS provider for each device. Assuming just one device per suit, the total comes to $87 million.

While cable companies soft-shoe thieves with amnesty programs, DirecTV, with 11.4 million subscribers, doesn’t kid around. Once discovered, pirates initially receive a three-pronged demand letter: Hand over the illegal devices, execute a written agreement to stop stealing the signal, and pay up remuneration for damages. If the letter is ignored, the follow-up is a civil suit.

To combat older, pirated access cards, which are widely traded and sold illegally among satellite customers, DirecTV occasionally sends damaging electronic signals through their systems, thus destroying the cards and forcing viewers to acquire new ones. DirecTV has also spent more than $25 million developing its latest “Period 4” fourth-generation access card. While documents surrounding the technology behind the Period 4 card were leaked on the Internet late last year by a 19-year old student working for one of DirecTV’s law firms (for which he was arrested by the FBI and charged with economic espionage), so far, hackers have not been able to break the Period 4’s technology.

(A spokesman for EchoStar, which has eight million subs, said the company does not release theft figures and subsequently referred us to Mr. Mercer at DirecTV.)