Detroit deals with a growth in illegal gas and electrical hookups

A breaker switch and meter are seen for a solar panel system installed on the roof of a business on April 15, 2009 in Gainesville, Florida.

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JEREMY HOBSON: At last count the unemployment rate in the state of Michigan was 13 percent. That's more than 3 percent higher than the national average. Well now the lousy economy in Michigan, combined with a glut of vacant homes there, are having an effect on the utility companies. Turns out squatters, homeownerss and even businesses are getting busted in record numbers for trying to get gas and electricity for free.

Sarah Hulett of Michigan Radio has the story.


SARAH HULETT: Every day of the work week, a team from DTE Energy investigates tips of illegal gas and electrical hookups.

VOICE: DTE!

They visit homes like this one on the city's west side, where theft investigator Keith Gross finds a meter box that's been hacked into.

KEITH GROSS: Look at this. Running right straight through the wall. Just a little piece of 16-gauge wire.

Inside the box, the meter 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.

MARK JOHNSON: Don't try this at home, kids.

That's Mark Johnson. He 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 clapboard siding is a recipe for fire. And he says these jerry-rigged connections are powering homes all over Detroit.

Last year, DTE found 60,000 instances of energy theft. The company is able to bill some of it to the energy thieves themselves. But the utility estimates its losses due to theft are at least $45 million a year. And those losses are ultimately passed on to paying customers. Part of the reason theft is so rampant in Detroit, Johnson says, is because the city has tens of thousands of abandoned homes.

JOHNSON: And every one of those abandoned homes is a potential squatter house. And if you're a squatter you have no legal right to live there. So therefore you can't get utility service. So they steal. And when we turn off the theft, they move to the next house. I've had little kids tell me, "Oh, we've lived in all those houses. We've moved house to house to house." As we've turned off theft, they just squat in the next house.

DTE officials say they put millions of dollars 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.

In Detroit, I'm Sarah Hulett for Marketplace.

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