Cable theft is the use of cable television service without the authorization of the cable company. There are several forms, including active and passive theft, and penalties can include fines. Cable providers have techniques they can use to identify cable theft, and many have an anonymous whistleblower tipline for customers to report suspected thieves.
In active cable theft, a person splices into a cable line and uses a black box decoder to unscramble the cable signal. Such devices are available on the open market, usually with caveats warning buyers not to use them illegally, but people often ignore these warnings. Cable providers may find out when they respond to complaints about bad signal in an area or where a poor splicing job starts to cause radio interference. When this happens, law enforcement agencies and other radio users may investigate to determine why their systems are not working properly.
Passive cable theft occurs when people notice that they receive a cable signal even though they are not paying for it and decide to take advantage. Sometimes, operators turn on a signal by accident or forget to deactivate it after a tenant stops a cable subscription. People are liable for any services they use in this way and it is generally advisable to contact the cable company to report an unexpected cable signal. The signal could also be the result of a past incident of active cable theft, such as an illegal line split to direct cable to a house or apartment, in which case the cable company will want to know about it.
Cable subscribers may engage in an activity known as premium theft, where they pay for a basic package and use a descrambler to access premium cable services or options like pay-per-view. The cable company can detect this and can recover the cost of the services, as well as a penal fine from the customer. In some regions, using cable boxes without authorization carries an independent fine, regardless as to how someone was using the box, and thus the consequences for this kind of cable theft can be very expensive.
Transitioning to digital cable has resolved some cable theft problems because it is more difficult for people to unscramble on their own. Cable companies argue theft of services makes it more expensive for them to provide services, forcing law abiding customers to pay more for their cable. It also creates more work for employees, as they have to investigate and respond to cable theft and the problems it causes, such as interruptions to the signal of a paying customer.