Robbing the Cable

Baltimore magazine, July, 1999

The Internet can take you to some pretty interesting places. It almost took Judy Sammel to jail.

When this Catonsville computer scientist signed up for Comcast Cablevision’s speedy Internet service in March 1998, she declined the option for accompanying cable television. After all, she’d be too busy surfing, right?

But the two men who installed her Internet connection didn’t have the gizmo needed to block the television portion of the signal (a “video trap,” it’s called). Until they returned with one, they told her, she could watch all the A&E, C-SPAN, and MTV that her heart desired. Gratis.

“Isn’t that illegal?” Sammel asked.

“Think of it as an incentive to sign up,” one replied. Both men laughed.

Fast-forward eight months. No one ever returned with the gizmo. Instead, Sammel came home one day to find a letter from the District Court of the State of Maryland, charging her with four counts of cable fraud. Seems a Comcast auditor found her townhouse tethered to its line, and, not on the subscriber list, she was turned in for cable theft.

The law-abiding Sammel was looking at two years of hard time and a $4,000 fine. “It was ridiculous,” Sammel says, noting that she had called the company numerous times asking for the video trap. “If I wanted cable I would have just paid for it.”

Getting her good name restored, however, turned into a two month ordeal, a Kafka-esque maze of clueless customer service reps, apathetic public employees, and endless runarounds from Comcast and the Maryland court system. Only when she started hinting at a malicious-prosecution lawsuit did the case finally vanish.

“It was a fluke,” says David Nevins, a spokesperson for Comcast. “We don’t deny that Comcast was at fault, but it was an isolated occurrence.” Comcast sent a VP to Sammel’s home to apologize profusely. She wasn’t at home, but the cable-fraud fugitive did get a year’s free service and a $50 gift certificate to Bibelot.

Nevins asserts Comcast now requires auditors to check both the cable and Internet databases.

Sammel, however, is not so sure it couldn’t happen again. “If they feel it’s a fluke, then that’s a problem,” she says.

A problem, Ms. Sammel? Or an incentive?

--Joab Jackson

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