BANGOR, Maine — Thieves have cut copper ground wires off Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. utility poles, broken into substations to steal unused copper and other materials, and are now tampering with meters to steal electricity, according to Susan Faloon, company spokeswoman.
“We’ve actually filed [theft of services] charges 23 times in just the last six months,” she said Friday.
The company is taking a stronger stance against those stealing electricity and copper, officials announced during a press conference Friday at the Bangor Police station that included Assistant District Attorney Steve Burlock and representatives from the Maine State Police, Penobscot County Sheriff’s Department, and Bangor and Veazie police departments.
“Not only is it illegal, but it can kill you,” Bangor police Sgt. Paul Edwards said, referring to tampering with meters, guy wires and other equipment used to deliver electricity.
People stealing copper from substations outside of Maine have died or suffered severe electrical burns, Gerry Chasse, president of Bangor Hydro and Maine Public Service, said in a statement.
“It’s that dangerous and it’s just not worth it,” he said as a warning.
There has been an increase in thefts in recent years, Chasse said.
“Theft of services is a problem that has been plaguing electric utilities for a number of years,” he said. “It is very important that we address this issue for two reasons — it represents a danger to the public and our employees, and it costs other customers money.”
Theft of services occurs when customers tamper with meters in an effort to divert electricity illegally so they don’t have to pay for it, Chasse said.
“Since September 2012, the direct dollar amount of electricity stolen from our utilities by illegally connected meters is more than $48,000,” he said. “These are just the cases where the suspects have been caught and have been found guilty.”
With more than 156,000 meters, the electric company is using technology and human resources to find those breaking the law, and expects to find “more stealing from the system” and, in turn, more cases to prosecute, Faloon said.
The theft of $35,000 in scrap from Bangor Hydro in the fall was recently successfully prosecuted, with jail time and fines for two and a $4,000 fine for the recycling business that purchased the stolen scrap metals, the assistant district attorney said.
“It’s been going on for a little while,” Faloon said. “We’re just letting people know we’re not just going after copper thefts, but also theft of services.”
Those found tampering with utility equipment or stealing electricity could be charged with a number of crimes and could face fines, pay restitution and, possibly, go to jail, Edwards said.
“We’re going to work with them [the district attorney’s office and Bangor Hydro] and want people to call if they see suspicious behaviors or activities,” the sergeant said.
In addition to stealing copper from utility companies, thieves also break into homes and steal the water pipes in homes that look abandoned. Reports of those types of thefts always increase in the spring, Edwards said, because that is when “snowbirds,” residents who leave Maine for warmer weather each winter, typically return home.