Detroit utility struggles to stay on top of theft

Nov 2, 2010

If you walk into a gas station or a party store in the city of Detroit, you might see a flyer taped up, advertising "help with gas and lights."

But the phone number probably won’t connect to a charity program or aid organization. More likely, it’ll put you in touch with a fixer who will help you steal electricity or natural gas.

Trying to shut the problem down is a team of investigators from DTE Energy. Every day of the work week, they embark on what seems like a never-ending game of whack-a-mole.

They visit homes and businesses to investigate tips of energy theft. And those tips often lead to discoveries like the one recently made at a home on Detroit's west side."

"Look at this," says DTE theft investigator Keith Gross, pointing to a piece of wire stuck into the side of a clapboard-sided house off Michigan Avenue. "Running right straight through the wall. Just a little piece of 16-gauge wire."         

The meter on the side of this house is gone. Someone has wedged a nail and what looks like a scissor blade into the box to conduct electricity, and they’ve connected it to a wire that’s threaded into a hole in the side of the house.

"This we see 30 times a day times 30 employees. Hundreds of those," says Mark Johnson, who heads DTE’s theft-investigation unit. Johnson says the makeshift connection could give someone a powerful shock. He says the flimsy wire pushed through the house’s siding is a recipe for fire. And he says these jerry-rigged connections are powering homes all over Detroit.

Lisa Adams comes up the basement stairs after investigators knock on the back door. Adams rents this house. She says she had no idea her electricity came through an illegal hookup.

"I haven’t been here that long, and I didn’t know anything about it," she says. Adams says she pays one lump sum to her landlord. When asked if she believes the rent she pays includes money for utilities, Adams sighs. "Probably," she says. "Most likely."

DTE officials say this is a common situation. Landlords advertise properties with "free utilities" that are actually stolen.

Last year, DTE verified 60,000 reports of illegal gas and electric hookups. Johnson says that’s way higher than other utility companies of similar size. The problem has become so pervasive, the company successfully lobbied for tougher penalties. Governor Granholm signed legislation in July that made energy theft a felony, with a conviction carrying a prison term up to five years, and a $5,000 fine.

Part of the reason theft is so rampant in Detroit, Johnson says, is because the city has 60,000 abandoned homes.

"Every one of those abandoned homes is a potential squatter house," says Johnson. "So therefore you can’t get utility service. So they steal. And when we turn off the theft, they move to the next house. And the next house. I’ve had kids say, oh, we’ve lived in all those houses. As we’ve turned off theft, they just squat in the next house."

The bleak economy and high unemployment have also driven people to look for ways around their meters. And Michigan State University sociologist Carl Taylor says there’s another phenomenon at work, too. He says a growing number of people who can pay their bills are also stealing energy.

"The attitude is screw ‘em," says Taylor. "They feel institutions such as the banks and the utilities and the banks are all about money, and they don’t care about them as individuals. We’re seeing a great increase – people from factory workers to schoolteachers, to business people are turning to illicit connections."

Advocates for the poor say the utility’s practice of disconnecting service for people who don’t pay their bills is to blame for many illegal connections. Earlier this year, at least seven people in Detroit were killed in fires at homes with illegal hookups. Three of them were children.

DTE officials say they put millions of dollar each year into a fund to help people pay their bills. But they say they can’t help people who don’t seek assistance, and many people never do – deciding to steal the energy instead.

Contact Sarah Hulett at sarahhu@umich.edu