Thousands stealing power from JEA, their neighbors

By Jennifer Waugh, The Morning Show anchor, investigative reporter, jwaugh@wjxt.com
Published On: Aug 06 2014 10:19:39 AM EDT
Updated On: Jul 10 2014 06:40:00 PM EDT

Every year nearly a million dollars worth of electricity is stolen from JEA. That's a lot of money and the reality is any kind of loss like that is ultimately passed on to all of us.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -

We spent three days with JEA investigators and were stunned to see how many people are stealing electricity.

Not only is it extremely dangerous, but it costs all of us money. Why? Nearly a million dollars worth of power is stolen every year, mostly by customers who have not paid their bill and tamper with their meter to get electricity illegally. With that kind of loss, we all end up paying for it.

STEALING FROM JEA 

JEA has investigators who respond to 6,000-7,000 cases of meter tampering every year. Every house, apartment and business has an electrical meter that tracks how much electricity is consumed each day.

JEA has the ability to monitor these meters remotely. A few meters still need to be read by a JEA worker. If a meter, which is the globe that fits into the box, is removed from the meter can, JEA immediately knows.

Investigators are then sent to the location of that meter to determine if someone has been illegally tampering with it to consume power illegally.

It is extremely dangerous to touch anything inside a meter box. There are 120-240 volts running through it. If you put your fingers in the wrong place, you could be burned, or worse, electrocuted. 

"120 volts can be more dangerous than 240," explained David Edwards with JEA. "120 will hold onto you and if someone touches you they can get shocked too. 240 volts will throw you back."

Edwards said he's seen some crazy things with tampering cases. 

"We've seen jumper cables inside a meter can to divert power. We've seen screwdrivers placed in there, household knives," said Edwards. 

Edwards said he doesn't think most people realize the danger. 

Here are examples of illegal and dangerous attempts to steal power. Even more startling is people will climb a power pole and tap into the electricity. 

STEALING POWER FROM NEIGHBORS

During our time with JEA investigators, we found two homes where it appeared a neighbor was stealing electricity from another home.

One home on the Westside was using a meter that had been stolen from a mobile home park. It was done in an attempt to fool JEA by discarding the meter on the suspect's home and replacing it with someone else's meter. It didn't work.

"I can tell right away that this is not the meter to this home," said one of the investigators, who we are not naming for safety reasons.

Each home is assigned a meter. If it is switched, JEA knows immediately. We tracked down the electric box where the meter was stolen. It was in a mobile home park about a mile away. 

"Ah, he's checking, is it hot?" Edwards asks one of the investigators.

The man shakes his head, yes. The door to the meter box had been ripped off leaving the wires within reach of anyone.

"It's hot. Look at that, a child could have stuck his fingers in there and been shocked," said Edwards. 

The power was cut at the pole to prevent anyone from getting hurt. Tampering with a meter is a crime. It's a misdemeanor. The person who lives at the home where the stolen meter was discovered will be given a notice to appear before a judge.

In a second tampering case, a woman denied stealing power from the meter outside the mobile home where she lives on the Southside. She could not explain how the meter box was severely damaged. 

A lock that had been put on it to prevent further tampering had been pried off. A man who works in the area told us he saw an extension cord running from the mobile home to a neighbor's trailer.  

"I cut the cord in about five pieces," said Mick McDonald. 

Neighbors stealing from neighbors happens more often than you might think. 

"We've had several reports where people have been away, or out of town, away for the weekend and they come back and they have no power to their house," said Edwards.

SIGNS OF TAMPERING

Hanging wires from the electric pole or meter

Lids not secure on meter can

Meters upside down/turned sideways

Jumper cables in can or hanging from power lines

Cut seal around the meter

Colored tab under meter is cut

Wires going into the attic

IF YOU CAN'T AFFORD TO PAY YOUR BILL

JEA investigators said cutting power to users who are stealing is necessary.

"When a person's stealing, they're actually stealing from the community so when one person is going through and not paying for anything what does that mean? We're going to have to try to make up those differences," he said. "Essentially we all have to do our part here if we're using something we all have to pay for it."

JEA works all the time with customers who cannot afford to pay their bills. But you have to call them; you can't just ignore past due bills. They will typically call you, and they also send you a notice in the mail, warning you about an overdue payment.

DOCUMENT: List of local agencies that help customers pay utility bills

JEA also offers a program called My Budget that divides your monthly payment into 12 equal parts, so you pay the same amount each month. It is calculated by taking an average of your previous year's bills. To learn more, call JEA: 904-665-6000.

If Beaches Energy is your electric company, it offers the CARE Program for the elderly, disabled or low- income members of the beaches community.  To learn more call: 247-6241.

Florida Power and Light customers can receive up to a maximum of $500 for electric service once in a 12 month period through their Care to Share Assistance program.   

YOUR METER BOX

During one investigation, the meter box was severely damaged. The door covering it was missing. Even though the customer was current on his bill, JEA was forced to cut off the power at the pole, because it was too dangerous to leave the meter exposed. 

"Homeowners are responsible for their meter box, not JEA," said Edwards. 

If your meter box is damaged, JEA may cut power to your home until it's repaired. It can be expensive since an electrician is required.

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