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Five Arrested in Raids on Alleged Cable TV Theft Ring

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sheriff’s deputies broke up an alleged cable television theft ring Thursday operating at six San Fernando Valley locations, arresting five people and seizing hundreds of converter boxes and other equipment.

Forty flak-jacketed sheriff’s deputies raided storage facilities and small stores in Reseda, Northridge and Van Nuys after a six-month joint surveillance with security personnel from Continental Cablevision, the largest cable provider in Los Angeles.

During the searches, deputies also recovered the names of thousands of purchasers of the illegal cable converters, which authorities say were advertised in several electronics magazines and sold through the mail.

“These [illegal operators] keep close records on their customers,” said Deputy Guy Hiles, who led the raids. “In my estimation this is a multimillion-dollar operation.”

About a dozen deputies with search warrants stormed the hub of the operation, a large storage and office facility in the 15500 block of Erwin Street in Van Nuys. Officers shattered an office window to reach suspects who they believed were destroying evidence.

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Although the ringleaders were not expected to be armed, deputies wore tactical gear because some of the illegal equipment was believed to be purchased from suspects in an Ontario armed robbery.

Three men taken into custody at the Erwin Street location were handcuffed and seated on the ground against a late-model Mercedes convertible that authorities suspect was purchased with profits from the operation.

A nearby van filled with cases of converter boxes was confiscated by authorities, who were trying to determine where they came from.

The investigation will continue to determine if the ring stretches to other locations in other states. “There may be some [police] knocking on doors nationwide,” Hiles said.

Two other men were taken into custody at the other locations. The identities of those arrested were not immediately available.

The other sites raided were a residence in the 6300 block of Langdon Avenue, In and Out Stereo in the 14300 block of Victory Boulevard, and a residence in the 5600 block of Murietta Avenue, all in Van Nuys.

Deputies also searched a residence in the 9500 block of Rhea Avenue in Northridge and J and R’s Electronics in the 7200 block of Geyser Avenue in Reseda. The illegal gear had yet to be cataloged, but deputies said they recovered hundreds of cases of equipment, most appearing to be illegal converter boxes, known as “black boxes.”

“Black boxes” are modified converter devices used to receive encoded television signals. Generally sold for about $150, they allow viewers to see cable and pay-per-view events for free.

Perry C. Parks, a vice president of public affairs for Continental Cablevision, said there would be further investigation, including looking into the names of customers who purchased the boxes. The company plans to pursue civil action against the most serious offenders, in addition to pressing law enforcement to assess the maximum $1,000 misdemeanor fine for receiving the illegal equipment, the spokesman said.

Under state law, a person advertising four or more illegal converter boxes for sale or possessing nine or more illegal converter boxes for eventual sale faces up to one year in jail, a $25,000 fine or both.

Continental spends $1 million a year for 18 security officers to combat illegal cable use, which costs the company tens of millions of dollars annually.

“The money lost through this activity is a cost that generally gets passed on to the legitimate customer,” Parks said.

“We’re doing this to take a tough stance on people organizing this theft. But we also want to send a message to the end user that he is doing something that’s against the law.”

Parks said most cable companies, including Continental, will offer amnesty to people caught receiving illegal cable if they purchase a subscription package.

Nevertheless, about 250,000 to 500,000 people use illegal decoder boxes in Los Angeles and Orange counties, according to industry estimates.

The National Cable Television Assn.'s office of signal theft estimates that the cable black market cheats the U.S. cable industry out of $4.7 billion annually.

And because most cable franchises, like Continental, pay a percentage of their revenue to the cities they serve, municipalities are losing millions from their coffers.

Thursday’s raids come five months after charges were brought against nine people believed to be involved in the nation’s largest cable television piracy scam--allegedly bilking cable companies and taxpayers out of hundreds of millions of dollars.

That alleged scheme included the theft of more than 16,000 cable converter boxes, including 3,500 stolen from a Los Angeles Police Department evidence room in July 1994.


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