Some utility providers are boosting their efforts to combat theft, three years into a trend of increased stealing.
Providers have made it tougher to steal by installing electronic meters that send a signal when they're being tampered with, but more customers are simply bypassing meters. To better detect that, Salt River Project is adding meters along its power system to measure losses that wouldn't be detected otherwise.
At the same time, Mesa is increasing awareness of theft and urging residents to turn in thieves.
SRP's new meters are a pilot to curb theft, which doubled in 2008 and has remained at that high level, said Michael Mendonca, manager of revenue cycle services. The utility has replaced about two-thirds of old meters that measured energy use with a spinning disc, which customers could slow down to create artificially low readings. New electronic meters alert investigators when they're tampered with, but thieves have figured a way around that, too.
"What we are finding more often now is customers who just bypass the meter completely," Mendonca said.
The utility also contracts with a vendor who uses an algorithm to detect potential theft. SRP serves 940,000 customers and estimates theft totaled $435,000 last year.
At Arizona Public Service, more than 500,000 smart meters send hourly readings to headquarters, providing an instant tip if something suspicious is going on.
"Technology is more on the side of the electric utilities now," APS spokesman Damon Gross said. "We have a lot of ways of learning if people steal electricity."
While human meter readers are increasingly rare, the new technology can spot theft as fast or faster than the people who peered into backyards every month to read meters.
Utilities also encourage customers to send tips, Gross said. Last year, a photo was submitted of a home where electricity had been shut off, but it was lit up at night with Christmas lights. The recession has made theft more of a problem, Gross said.
"Any time people are struggling, they do desperate things, and clearly stealing electricity is desperate," he said.
He warned thieves risk fires, explosions, electrocution or creating a hazard for anybody who may touch exposed wires while passing by. Neither APS nor SRP said they were aware of serious injury or death. The companies said they often seek prosecution.
Mesa faces an unusually large number of utilities that customers can steal, as it's the only East Valley city supplying water, electricity and natural gas. The city has started asking residents to submit tips when they spot something suspicious, said Lori Timbrook, a field utilities superintendant.
"We're really trying to be more proactive about getting on it," she said.
The most common theft is from one of the city's 138,000 water meters. Often thieves will take the meter out and put a new pipe section in, which Timbrook said puts other customers at risk. Without a meter's backflow preventer, contaminated water could get sucked into larger parts of the system.
Mesa rarely prosecutes because the city is most concerned about recovering money for whatever was stolen, Timbrook said. One exception was for a man who kept removing gas and water meters and cutting locks the city deployed to prevent his stealing. The man eventually took water from a hydrant on his lot, filled his pool and then tapped into that water as needed. The city resorted to locking the fire hydrant to stop the relentless thief.
"Him, we had to go prosecution," Timbrook said, adding his charges totaled $3,500.
Customers who fall behind shouldn't panic, she said, because the city will refer struggling residents to nonprofit agencies that may offer bill assistance. Residents can request a payment plan if emergencies strike, which will keep them from getting hit with fines if they steal or damage lines.
"For a customer who might have gotten turned off for nonpayment of an $80 bill, they just more than doubled that by doing that instead of coming in and making payment arrangements," Timbrook said. "Some people don't know that. They feel they have no other way to go except to break into the line."