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Originally published April 4, 2009 at 10:54 AM | Page modified April 4, 2009 at 11:24 AM

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Ohio power company says more people stealing electricity amid recession

Consumer advocates in Ohio are urging people struggling to pay utility bills not to risk injury or death by tampering with power equipment to steal electricity.

DAYTON, Ohio —

Consumer advocates in Ohio are urging people struggling to pay utility bills not to risk injury or death by tampering with power equipment to steal electricity.

Dayton Power and Light Co. says it has investigated 860 case of suspected electricity theft in January and February, up 70 percent during the same period last year.

"It is a sign of the times in terms of how desperate consumers are," said Ryan Lippe, spokesman with the Ohio Consumers' Counsel.

People should work with utility companies and seek help from special payment programs before they consider doing something desperate and dangerous, such as tampering with electric meters, Lippe said.

Detectent, an Escondido, Calif.-based company that helps utilities such as DP&L fight theft, estimates utilities lose up to 3 percent of total distribution revenues to theft.

DP&L investigator Gary Gabringer said people who mess with power lines risk their lives.

People do various things to get electricity without paying for it, he said.

Some tamper with their electric meters. Others do wiring projects where the power lines meet the house. A few risk being zapped by trying to tap into the big lines that run between the power poles.

Even tampering with meters is risky. "There's enough electricity in there where it can knock your heart out of rhythm," Gabringer said.

DP&L spokeswoman Lesley Sprigg said the company's billing system flags locations where energy use continues after disconnection. Investigators usually stop the thievery before it exceeds the $500 limit that separates a misdemeanor from a felony.

In about 30 percent of the 6,816 suspected theft cases in 2008, DP&L was able to find a culprit and arrange for repayment. About 70 percent involved squatters living in vacant homes with no active, legal electrical service.

Carol Frisch, who is struggling to find work, got behind on her DP&L account in January, when she was hit by a $400 bill to heat and power her all-electric home.

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She paid half of the bill and was threatened with disconnection, then arranged a payment plan. She has until May to catch up or be disconnected.

"With the economy the way it is, DP&L should give the people that are trying (to pay) a break," she said. "A lot of people like me have to choose between electricity and food."

___

Information from: Dayton Daily News, http://www.daytondailynews.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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