How is Cable Theft Detected?

While it is perfectly acceptable for cable subscribers to splice their own cable signals to provide their paid service to multiple televisions and peripheral Internet devices, stealing or sharing cable with another household is illegal and considered cable theft. Cable theft is punishable by law, raises cable premiums for honest customers, and loses revenue for cable companies. These financial and ethical consequences cause many cable companies to search for people who violate these laws about cable distribution.

Many cable operators have begun joining with law enforcement agencies to detect illegal cable devices and prosecute those who are using them. Through this cooperation, there are a number of methods for detecting cable theft.


Paying Customer Detection

The honest customers who are paying for their cable services are the first line of defense against cable theft because they are the ones most likely to notice a problem. Some common issues that cable subscribers will observe include:

  • Interference with their television signals – When cable is stolen, it is frequently split from the paying customer's home to the thief's home. This split in the cable signal can cause static, pixilation, and "ghosting," described as a light doubling of the video image. When paying customers notice these problems, cable theft is often to blame.
  • Unexplained service hangs – Service hangs occur when the cable signal pauses for a second or two before skipping some of a broadcast in order to catch up to the live feed. Many television stations will do this on occasion when there is a broadcast issue, and it is nothing to worry about. However, if this phenomenon occurs frequently, it could be due to spliced cables.
  • Low Internet speed – Customers who have their Internet combined with their television cable may notice slowed Internet speed when there is cable theft. By checking the subscribed connection speed against the computer's ISP speed, it should be obvious if there are significant slows in speed that could be caused by cable theft.
  • Split cable lines – Cables that are split leave physical evidence leading away from the subscriber's house. Customers who suspect that their cable is being stolen can examine the lines that exit their houses to find a place in the cable line that is not entwined with the main line and that leads to a neighbor's house.
  • Unknown cable lines – Some cable thieves use extra wires rather than splitting an existing cable line. Paying subscribers can also look for excess cables that seem to lead to another home when searching for cable theft.


Cable Company Investigation

Many cable companies do not realize that there might be cable theft until there has been a complaint by a cable subscriber. These complaints are typically problems with television signal or Internet speed. If a cable company receives one of these complaints and cannot find an issue with the paying customer's indoor equipment, the cable operators may begin to suspect cable theft.

  • Cable theft equipment – Cable operators have equipment that is able to detect cable signals. They use this equipment outside the homes of subscribers where they suspect there may be cable theft. Signals are detected that lead in directions away from the customers' houses, and this indicates cable theft.
  • Tests of dBmV – These tests are done to determine the signal measurement at a cable subscriber's home. The term dBmV is the unit of measurement for how much signal should be in the house based on the subscribed services. With the cable operator's measurements at the site are lower than the services that are purchased, cable theft could be the cause and will be investigated further.
  • Professional examination – Although a paying customer may examine his or her cable lines around his or her home, a professional is better equipped to make a determination about whether cable theft is occurring or not. They know exactly what they might see, and they are quicker to recognize potential issues.
  • Uncover descramblers – Distributors of illegal descramblers are constantly being sought by cable companies and law enforcement. Since these devices are illegal, law enforcement is interested in finding out who bought them and then prosecuting those people. Once the names of descrambler purchases are available, cable operators have the legal ability to pursue and prosecute anyone who has the illegal gadgets.

Cable theft is illegal under state and federal law, and prosecutors are very successful in bringing criminal and civil action against those who violate those laws. When cable companies lose revenue from these thefts, honest customers are forced to shoulder the financial burden of those who are stealing cable. Subscribers who are aware of changes in or of issues with their cable services are most likely to notice cable theft first, and with their cooperation, cable theft can be detected and stopped.