It starts with a power cord fed under the fence into a neighbor’s backyard. Or a resident tampers with their meter box or electrical panel and bypasses the shut-off measures.
The outcome is electricity theft that results in other ratepayers picking up the tab — and more importantly, is a public safety hazard, city spokesman Jeff Hood said.
“Bypassing high voltage equipment means you are possibly endangering yourself and your neighbors in the event of a fire. If you are surreptitiously using extension cords to take power from neighbors, who knows if the cord can handle the load?” Hood said.
Lodi Electric Utility employees recently found that six out of 40 homes that were shut off for non-payment of utility bills had found a way to keep the volts flowing.
Employees disabled the meters even further, and one of the six customers came in to pay their bill the next day, Hood said.
Because of the thefts, Lodi plans to step up enforcement, dedicating a full-time and part-time position to focus on finding those who steal electricity.
When a customer doesn’t pay and the utility seals the meter, city employees now revisit the house to make sure the power is still off, said Rob Lechner, the utility’s customer service and programs manager.
“We choose random hours, and I mean random hours, and we go out and look to see if they turn themselves back on in some fashion. We look for the lights on, or other devices that might be consuming power that we can see,” Lechner said.
If someone is caught, then the Community Improvement Division will issue citations, and the City Attorney’s Office will prosecute anyone who steals or diverts power. The penalties include a fine of up to $1,000 and six months in jail plus court costs.
The city is asking anyone who sees someone who might be stealing electricity to call 333-6766. Hood said people should look for extension cords or neighbors continuously playing with the meters because only the city should be fixing or working on the devices.
“It’s not about ratting on your neighbor. It’s about protecting your community and your neighborhood,” he said.
The utility writes off about $500,000 a year, mostly from unpaid electric bills. But some of that cost comes from electricity theft, Lechner said.
“To the 99 percent of customers who pay their bill, we are trying to keep them whole,” he said. “Whatever we lose is borne by the utility.”
But more importantly, utility employees are worried about public safety first.
“Some of the measures we have seen, that other utilities have seen, are very creative, but very, very dangerous. ... If customers are trying theft diversion through the panel or the meter, it could lead to death,” Lechner said.
Hood said he does not know how much the enforcement measures will cost, but it is an important city priority.
“If it saves ratepayers some dollars and prevents a fire, injury or worse, then it’s worth it,” he said. “It’s just not fair to responsible utility customers to be subsidizing the cheats.”
The city sent several employees down to Modesto Irrigation District, which is the statewide leader in finding electricity theft. By searching out the thefts, Lechner said the city should get a better grasp on how often people are stealing and how much it is costing the city.
When someone doesn’t pay, Lechner said the city is willing to work with them, and offers a lengthy grace period before shutting off the electricity.
The city will then seal the meter by putting a locking ring in place and also disable the meter to keep it from spinning. He said often people will destroy the ring or smash the meter.
The next step is for the city to remove the meter and place a metal plate over the socket. If push comes to shove, Lechner said the city can cut the line servicing the home, and it will be significantly more expensive to turn the power back on.
Part of the reason the city has to step up enforcement is with digital meters, as no one is inspecting them on a regular basis. In the past, meter readers walked through backyards across the city and could look for any thefts, Lechner said.