While it's impossible to estimate the number of active thefts, Tupelo Water amp& Light catches an average of five offenders per month. Many involve former customers whose power was cut off after nonpayment.
Instead of settling their delinquent bills, they steal electricity through one of several methods - running an extension cord to a neighboring home; tampering with their meters to reconnect the power source; or swiping a meter from a vacant house.
It's a potentially dangerous scheme that carries a risk of electrocution and fire. It also saddles honest customers with extra costs.
"In the past, it was just a very minor thing, but now, with the times like they are and people out of work, people are starting to steal," said Tupelo Water amp& Light Manager Johnny Timmons. "It's all boiling down to the recession. People get desperate."
The city loses revenue on roughly 1.9 million kilowatt hours of electricity each month. That's the difference between the amount it buys from the Tennessee Valley Authority and the amount it reads on its meters. It represents a 3.5 percent loss.
The average residential customer uses 1,200 kilowatt hours per month.
Not all the loss comes from theft, however. Some is siphoned off by trees touching power lines, slow or unreliable meters and the tiny amount of energy transformers use to process electricity.
The revenue gap is absorbed by paying customers, who foot the bill for their own electricity along with that of freeloaders.
TWamp&L catches thieves by monitoring abnormal use patterns on meters and returning frequently to sites they've cut off. But it's neighbors who supply the best tips.
"We've had neighbors to call in and say there's somebody tampering with the meter and they saw a big ball of fire," Timmons said. "And we'll go check, and sure enough, you can tell it got burnt up."
Fire and electrocution can occur when someone rigs homemade jumper wires to the meter box and touches ungrounded metal. They have only about an inch of room for error, so it's a delicate and risky procedure.
If they're caught, power thieves face $100 fines on their accounts and possibly jail time.
If you suspect someone of stealing electricity from the city, call (662) 841-6460.