It might be a tempting idea to hook up to your neighbor’s cable service from your own apartment, saving yourself the cost of a monthly television bill, but if you succumb and actually do it, it’s stealing. Even if you've just moved into a new home to discover that the last resident never turned off the cable service, it's theft if you continue to use the service. Cable companies listen to tips from the public and periodically run system audits to detect unauthorized users.
Criminal penalties for cable television theft generally depend on the value of the services you’ve taken. If you’ve been watching free TV for a month, the penalty won’t be as serious as if you’ve been doing it for six months – the value of what you’ve taken increases with the number of monthly bills for services you haven’t paid. In Missouri, if you take $500 or more of unauthorized services, it’s a felony; otherwise, it’s a misdemeanor. In Pennsylvania, $50 of stolen services draws the dividing line between a criminal charge and a simple summary offense, which is less serious.
The cable company can also sue you in civil court to try to recover the money you should have paid for services but didn’t. If the court rules against you, you could also be held liable for punitive damages, money you’d have to pay as punishment. You could be ordered to pay the company’s legal costs and attorney’s fees as well.