You think of stealing in terms of physical or tangible items, such as food or jewelry.
Criminal laws also punish you for theft of things you necessarily can’t carry or take away physically. These include meals, telephone service, a cable or Internet package and a stay in a hotel. If you’re charged with theft of service, one of our attorneys can advise you on the penalties, possible defenses and ways to resolve the charge.
New York Penal Code Law 165.15 describes 11 general categories of theft of service, each generally by the type of service involved:
Using a stolen debt or credit card to pay for any service violates the theft of service law if you know that it is stolen. This particular theft also happens if you use the card knowing it is stolen and induce acceptance of that card by the supplier. If you use your own card, but it’s been cancelled or closed, you don’t violate this section. However, you can face prosecution under this category, but can be guilty of thefts of specific types of services.
If you sneak from a restaurant, hotel, motel or inn without paying, you have committed theft of service. Other acts include knowingly false statements that induce the provider to render service and refusing to pay without justification. The fact that you leave without paying or that you refuse to pay is, in the absence of an explanation, sufficient to convict you.
Avoiding payment of the fare for planes, buses, taxis, subways, railroads or other means of public transportation by threats, stealth, force, lies or tampering with devices violates the Penal Code . This can arise where you dart from the cab upon arriving at your destination without paying.
Connecting to a cable, water, electric or other utility line without paying for it is a form of theft of utilities and telecommunications services. You also face prosecution by offering or using descramblers or decoders to watch channels you haven’t paid for or making false statements to get or keep service. Proof of tampering, unauthorized access to equipment or unauthorized connections raises the presumption you intended to avoid paying the charges.
Theft of telephone service happens when you use, without permission, or offer for sale an existing, revoked or cancelled credit card number, phone (including mobile) number, account number, personal identification number or electronic serial number to obtain phone service. Using phony, fictitious names, phone numbers or credit card, phone, account, electronic serial or personal identification numbers or those belong to others without permission also violates the penal code.
If you tamper or interfere with a meter or prevent it from accurately recording or showing your water or power usage, you’ll face charges of theft of service by meter tampering. The presumption of theft also extends to proof that you tampered with equipment related to the meter.
The previous subsection focuses on tampering with meter readers. In this subdivision, you can be convicted through efforts to bypass the readers. Diverting gas, water, steam, electricity or other services from their pipes, lines or conductors also constitutes theft of service.
You may be charged with theft or service for tampering with the equipment that supplies (or stops supply of) gas, water, electricity or other utilities to your establishment or the general public. This can happen when you alter or interfere with the equipment. Acts of interference may include obstructing the lines or siphoning gas or water.
Unauthorized entry onto property is traditionally criminal trespassing. When you enter a concert hall, theatre without paying the admission, it constitutes theft of services. If you use a chair lift, gondola or a similar mechanical contraption to get to the start or end of a ski course without paying, you can face theft of service charges.
The New York Penal Code prohibits you from appropriating another’s workers, buildings, grounds or equipment for yourself or a third-party. This offense can arise should you decide to use your employer’s tools or facilities for your own enterprise. For example, without the employer’s permission, you use the auto repair station to repair engines and collect the charges for yourself.
Theft of services includes accessing computers, computer services and computer networks for the purpose of avoiding the charges of using them. The offense can arise if you hack into a Wi-Fi network that requires a subscription or payment or if you access services through an Internet Service Provider using a false password or overcoming its coding or other security.
Since the crime requires that you do so without payment, Section 165.15(11) likely will not cover hacking a personal computer or the system of a business that doesn’t make its systems or Wi-Fi available to the public on any basis. However, other computer criminal laws may apply.
Most convictions for theft of service are punished as Class A misdemeanors. This translates to potential jail time of 15 days to one year or three years of probation and a maximum fine of $1,000. Certain thefts of cable television service where the value isn’t more than $100 constitutes a “violation” if you haven’t previously been convicted of theft of cable service. A conviction for avoiding payment for admission to a theater, concert hall or a ski-lift type device is also a violation if you have no prior conviction for it. In New York, violations carry no more than 15 days imprisonment and are not considered “crimes.”
You face punishment as a Class E felon if you steal telephone service by certain methods. Class E felonies are punishable by up to four years in prison under Penal Code 70.00.2(e).
When theft of services is based on a refusal to pay, you might contend you had reasonable basis to not pay what the provider says you owe. Such bona fide disputes may involve erroneous amounts charged or the quality of the service. If you refused payment because of quality, be prepared to show that you complained about the service and took steps to discontinue or refuse the service.
Where you’re charged because of a declined credit card, you may defend based on a reasonable belief that you were authorized to use the card and that you had sufficient funds on your debit or credit card. Get a statement to show your available credit limit or bank balance when you obtained or tried to pay for the service. A math error might reveal you mistakenly thought you had enough money for payment. A computer glitch might have caused your card to be declined or shown as closed.
Contact one of our attorneys to help you handle a charge of theft of services. We can examine the charges and evidence and help you defend or try to reduce the charges to avoid a criminal conviction and punishment.