Electricity Theft Affects Not Just Xcel, But All Customers Too

Wes Reeves, Xcel Energy
Wes Reeves, Xcel Energy

A continued rise in electricity theft has Xcel energy looking into adding more personnel to their investigation unit.

Because the theft of electricity could be deadly.

This year they've already seen almost a 20 percent rise in theft cases compared to last year.

And this growing trend is a threat not only to the people stealing power, but it could harm Xcel employees and other electricians.

Experts say the most common form of theft comes from people tampering with their meters after power has been cut off.

But some people try other techniques like hooking up jumper cables between the power line and their house.

"You have the risk of not only hurting yourself. You can cause an electrical fire, there's a lot of safety issues involved," said Wes Reeves, the Xcel Energy Spokesman.

Xcel is the main power company from as far northeast as Lipscomb County, all the way to Roswell in the southwest.

They say there have been cases of house fires from people who tampered with their power supply.

But there's also a huge risk of personal injury.

"There could be a flash over. many things could happen in many cases. When they're actually damaging the meter, they're removing the safety checks and safety equipment that they don't even realize they're doing," said Reeves.

It's not just a safety issue, energy theft is a crime.

Even the threat of serving jail time isn't enough to stop a significant increase in electricity theft.

The number of electricity cases has steadily increased for the past few years.

But Xcel officials say there's no doubt the economy is forcing more people to steal.

Over the past few years, the number of delinquent accounts have risen.

And after the power is cut off, people are forced to steal power to get by.

"These aren't all career criminals. A lot of folks are just trying to survive today and they're doing this, but not only is it illegal. It's dangerous," said Reeves.

There is only one theft investigator who covers the entire Texas Panhandle and a majority of Eastern New Mexico.

But he has help from servicemen and meter readers.

And depending on the severity of the case, Xcel occasionally presses charges.

"Most of it is misdemeanor type crimes, depends on how much power is actually stolen. So we have had people go to jail over this," said Reeves.

In Texas, if the amount of energy stolen is less than $1500 it is considered a misdemeanor.  If it's more, it is a felony.

In New Mexico, energy theft is considered a petty misdemeanor if it is less than $250. Anything more it's a felony.

But the threat of delinquent accounts and more theft hurts paying customers the most.

The debt Xcel accumulates through people not paying for the power they use is distributed to all customers.

"That is a risk to other customers. Most customers pay their bills on time, or they pay their bill even if they are late. But it's not fair because they're basically stealing from fellow customers," said Reeves.

That debt can be in the millions of dollars each year.