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Armed with spectrum analyzers, leakage detectors and other high-tech snooping devices, a squad of electronic detectives will soon be sweeping the Wasatch Front for an estimated 48,000 cable TV signal thieves.

Dan McCarty, general manager of TCI Cablevision, announced Tuesday morning that his company is launching an aggressive policing effort, beginning with a three-week "amnesty period" during which cable pilferers can legitimately link up to the system with "no questions asked."After that, however, TCI intends to get tough, McCarty warned. People who are watching cable programs without paying for them will be prosecuted under a new state law that makes theft of cable TV services a crime, he said.

Freeloaders are costing TCI, Utah's largest cable company, about $15 million a year, according to McCarty. Based on that figure, local governments that are entitled to franchise taxes on cable service are losing $750,000 in revenues. Also, legitimate customers are paying the full cost of cable service - fees that have tripled in recent years - while cheaters get it free.

"When someone steals cable service, everybody loses," McCarty said.

In January, the Utah Legislature passed SB69, which includes cable television in a statute that prohibits the theft of gas, electricity, water and sewer services. Charges of cable TV service theft already have been filed against 15 individuals and are pending against 137 others, according to McCarty. Violation of the law is punishable by six months to 15 years in jail and fines of $1,000 to $10,000.

During the next three weeks, TCI will sponsor a number of newspaper and television ads designed to inform people of the law and to encourage them to sign up for legitimate cable service. One newspaper ad will tell service thieves, "You could be arrested, jailed and fined."

To catch the thieves, specially equipped "field auditors" will check every house along the Wasatch Front for unauthorized service, McCarty said. Their equipment can "see" what signals are going into a home, he explained. If an unauthorized cable signal is detected, the auditors can photograph it for use in court.

McCarty says the program will not violate anyone's privacy. "We're not doing anything in the home. We're not invading anyone's personal space," he said, adding that all monitoring will be done from areas to which TCI has legal access.

Similar audits have been conducted in other states with great success, according to McCarty.

At a press conference Tuesday, McCarty displayed several devices used to tap into cable TV service, some of which disrupt the signal for paying customers. "That's how we detected some of it," he explained. Also unveiled was the wave form monitor and spectrum analyzer that cable officials say will find the thousands of signal thieves.