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Published: Monday, 4/9/2001

Power thieves can be victims of their own crime

BY ROBIN ERB
BLADE STAFF WRITER

John Wismer often marvels at the remarkable - albeit downright dangerous - ingenuity of electricity thieves.

They've rigged jumper cables to siphon power. They've spliced their own wiring off service lines charged with 240 volts of electricity as it enters the meter. They've run extension cords from a neighbor's outside electrical outlet into their bedroom windows, and jimmied meters with toothpicks and metal forks and spoons. They've even used loose change to jam electric meters.

“I don't get it,” said Mr. Wismer. “People must not realize that to save a couple of bucks, they could get killed. It's unbelievably crazy.”

Nevertheless, stealing power is a risk that some are willing to take - despite the potential for deadly consequences.

Mr. Wismer is the primary investigator for the energy theft investigation department at Toledo Edison.

In short, he's the company's “fraud squad.”

At a time when electric and other utility prices have increased substantially, guarding against theft has taken on more focus for the power companies.

Detroit Edison, a utility that covers 13 counties in Michigan, estimates that it loses $35 million each year to fraud cases.

Its investigation unit consists of 15 investigators and support personnel, said spokesman Scott Simons.

Consumers Energy, which extends into many of the same Michigan counties, has no official investigation unit, but it estimates it loses a “few million” dollars each year in energy theft, said spokesman Charlie MacInnis.

Toledo Edison's investigation unit last year looked into 925 complaints and was responsible for recovering $309,000 in theft and fraud cases, said Mary Jo Hahn, the department's clerk.

Some of the complaints come from neighbors who notice residents tinkering with meters; others come from the more than 100 Toledo Edison field personnel who notice jimmied meter locks or suspicious readings, said Bernie Wanner, who oversees both the investigation unit and meter readers.

However, once caught, a Toledo Edison customer must pay for the estimated theft - it is calculated using past bills - in addition to a $111.35 fine allowed by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.

Fail to pay and you do not get your service back.

At Detroit Edison, Mr. Simons said the utility discovered one case where a thief ran an extension through an empty lot, spliced the exposed ends to a wire coat hanger, and hooked it to the utility wire.

“It's an exposed wire buried in thick grass where children could play,” Mr. Simons said.

Other times, it's just a bit of creativity.

Mr. Wanner once found a meter successfully jammed with two quarters.

“Hey, I made out that day,” Mr. Wanner said, laughing. “I got 50 cents out of it.”

On a recent day on Glenwood Avenue, the street was empty, and the loose gravel crackled underneath Mr. Wismer's leather boots as he slid his 6-foot, 4-inch frame out from the driver's seat.

He headed for a two-story house where a meter reportedly had been jimmied.

He is quiet. He must be.

If he is distracted and grazes the wrong piece in the meter's charged guts, the current would flash through his body, toasting his insides as it arced to the ground.

“I still get a bead of sweat down my neck every time I do this,” he said.

He dons rubber gloves, then leather ones, and finally darkened safety goggles.

He tugs on the meter's metal tag. It snaps. Broken.

Gingerly, he pulls off the cover. Taps it. Peeks inside. Sighs.

It's a simple case of someone pulling off the rubber sleeves that would have turned off the current to these residents who are behind in their payments.

This time, he said, no one got hurt.

But all too often, ragged, blackened holes in the metal meter frames testify to escaped voltage.

Most likely, the would-be thief went to the hospital with serious burns when that happened, Mr. Wismer said.

“Very creative, very dangerous, and very stupid,” he said.

The danger increases for those who are tempted to steal power straight from the distribution line atop the electric pole.

“Hit that, and you'd be dead,” Mr. Wismer said, matter-of-factly. “Poof. Gone.”

Returning to his truck, Mr. Wismer scratches notes on his clipboard, returns his pen to the pocket of his flame-retardant work shirt, and pulls away from the curb toward his next assignment, shaking his head.

“I love this job,” he said.

“Just when you think you've seen the most creative, the most ridiculous thing, someone will take it a step further.”



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