On his syndicated TV show, America's Most Wanted, John Walsh helps apprehend some of the nation's most notorious murderers, rapists and kidnappers. Now, he's helping a local cable company with a more mundane crime: theft of cable services.
Walsh is appearing in local commercials urging county residents to stop cable theft. The commercials are part of Jones Intercable's monthlong amnesty program that asks people who are stealing cable services to turn themselves in and start paying for them without the fear of being prosecuted.
"You don't want to go after people who are being honest," Jones Intercable general manager Roger Holleger said. "You have to give them a chance to come forth."
The program, which runs until July 15, already has persuaded 30 customers to turn themselves in and start paying for cable, Jones Intercable public relations manager Lori Torrie said.
During the grace period, Jones Intercable agents will be notifying customers who they think are not paying for cable by putting notices on their doors. After the second notice and the expiration of the grace period, Tampa residents who are stealing cable will be prosecuted.
Jones Intercable officials said the following excuses after the grace period will not be tolerated:
"My TV just started getting HBO all by itself."
"It was on when we moved in."
"I thought we were paying for it."
"I didn't know it was illegal."
"My cousin did it."
"We're after the people who are just trying to cheat us," Holleger said.
Holleger estimates that as many as 3 percent of Jones Intercable's 60,000 customers in the city of Tampa are wittingly or unwittingly stealing some type of cable service.
During the mid-1980s, between 15 percent and 20 percent of Florida cable revenues were being lost to theft, said Bob Brillante, executive vice president of the Florida Cable Television Association.
Brillante said the unique demographic profile of Florida residents makes them more capable of cable theft because they are "highly transient" and "technologically educated."
Besides Jones Intercable, other area cable companies have enjoyed success with amnesty programs. Paragon Cable, which services parts of Hillsborough, Pinellas and Polk counties, conducted an amnesty program from August to November last year. More than 4,000 customers responded to Paragon's program, said Tony Marino, the vice president of marketing and programing.
Paragon Cable gives its subscribers three chances before they are prosecuted. Glen Randall, Paragon's quality control technical supervisor, said his company has prosecuted 30 customers.
To begin paying for cable service at Jones Intercable, call customer service at 875-7570. To report possible cable thefts, call the anonymous hot line at 877-6805, ext. 900. In both cases, Jones Intercable officials insist "there will be no questions asked."