What is Cable Theft?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

Cable boxes decode a cable provider's signal so that a television can then display programming.
Cable boxes decode a cable provider's signal so that a television can then display programming.

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.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@Soulfox -- I do believe the complexity of digital signals is the thing that cuts down on theft. You've got to have some highly specialized equipment to unscramble signals and those are either cost prohibitive or they don't work that well do to changing protocols.

Still, cable theft remains a problem. One reason is that swiping shows from the Internet requires a lot of work -- you've got to find a good way to grab the shows you want and then it can be a hassle to stream them to your TV screen. There's some technical stuff involved in that and that leads to more work than simply swiping a cable system and piping it to your television.

Here's a question, though. Cable rates have dropped quite a bit (in this area, at least) due to competition from satellite. Why not pay a few bucks on cable and avoid the risks that come with swiping it?


You just don't hear about cable theft like you did in the past when it was very, very common. Why is that? Is it harder to steal cable because digital lines make it easier to monitor where signals are going or do people just steal programs from the Internet these days?

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