Beware: Tampering with your electric meter can land you in jail.
Investigations by Duke Energy found cases throughout the utility's Florida service area where customers' bills decreased because of illegal adjustments to their electric meters.
"It is fair to say we are seeing this type of scheme across the state," said Sterling Ivey, a Duke Energy spokesman.
The problem has grown worse recently, in particular across Central Florida, Ivey said. More than a dozen suspected cases in Polk County led to four arrests for grand theft, electricity theft and obtaining property by fraud.
A conviction on the grand theft and fraud charges are third-degree felonies that carry a maximum five-year sentence. Theft of electricity is a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail.
Police arrested one homeowner for grand theft and fraud and charged him with stealing $3,400 worth of electricity over two years. Francisco Paredes of Haines City told police that his average bill was $100 to $200 but that dropped to $10.48. "He continued paying this amount without rectifying his payments with Duke Energy," a police report said.
Ramiro Gudino Morales of Haines City told police that the $2,100 he owed to Duke Energy was the result of a man visiting his home in the spring, offering services to lower his bill.
After paying the man $200, Morales' bill "was dramatically lower; approximately $10.48," according to a police report.
Duke Energy investigators examined meters in Polk County and found that someone stopped the meters from recording electricity usage by disabling them at the socket that connected the units to homes.
"We are aware of the customer's statement that an individual offered a service to reduce their electric costs, and we are working closely with law enforcement as the investigation into this person continues," Ivey said.
The Polk County Sheriff's Office has issued a warrant for the arrest of Roberto Hernandez-Moreno, 38, of Winter Park in connection with tampering with electric meters at various homes.
Hernandez-Moreno faces charges of tampering with a utility device, scheming to defraud and grand theft after homeowners. At this time, his whereabouts are unknown.
Neither Duke Energy nor Tampa Electric will show up to your home unannounced to offer services. Both utilities offer free home energy audits, which help homeowners find ways to reduce their electricity costs.
Utilities offer the energy audits at the customer's request, but those services do not include tinkering with the electric meter.
The state Public Service Commission and utility companies have been warning customers in recent months of a rash of scams. Often someone calls customers and suggests they have not paid the utility bill. The caller then seeks the consumer's personal information to defraud them.
"Tampa Electric and all utilities in the Tampa Bay area will never ask for your credit card number over the phone," said Cherie Jacobs, a Tampa Electric spokeswoman. "We will always carry identification. And if there is ever a question … you can always call customer service."
Ivan Penn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2332.