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Welcome back to Ask a Lawyer, wherein I, a lawyer, respond to your questions. Got a vexing legal issue? Send it over, or drop it in the comments below.

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We moved into an apartment complex where basic cable service was supplied and required by every renter (no HBO, but ESPN, HGTV, etc.). It was a separate $40 fee on top of the rent. Whatever, that’s fine, the rent is still cheaper than most places in Florida.

A few months later, new owners took over the complex, and got rid of the cable requirement. They told us we could just dispose of the small cable boxes that came with the apartment complex. The cable company sent out letters telling everyone that if we didn’t wish to keep cable, to call them and let them know. And that if we didn’t want the service, it would be shut off in December.

We called them to let them know that we did not wish to keep cable service, that the internet we got from them was sufficient. The cable got disconnected the first week of December magically reappeared a week later! The cable boxes that we never disposed of came back to life. It’s been three months, and aside from a day or two, we’ve had the same cable service that we’ve always had.

Nothing shows up on our bill. We’re living the American dream, right???? My question is—do I need to inform the cable company that we are getting their service for free? Or, if I say nothing, will they have a legal case against us down the road and send us a bill for months of unpaid cable?

No HBO, but HGTV? That’s like saying, “The liquor store was out of nice bourbon, but don’t be sad because there was a sale on bottles of David Ortiz forearm sweat.” Equating free HGTV with living the American Dream is bleak—the best association there is that we’ve hit rock bottom and can now start clawing our way back, like Bruce Wayne going Deshi Basara to the top of The Pit.

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Let’s be blunt: Nobody likes cable companies. Not the executives at cable companies, those executives’ moms, or even the people the executives pay to hug their moms for them. Nobody. But the law is the law. And until you have enough money (and blackmail leverage) for lobbyists and legislators to write and enact state and federal laws exactly as you please, well, the law is certainly going to apply to the chump who gets excited about free cable.

What you’re really asking is whether you’re stealing. There’s a phrase for this in particular: cable theft. Generally, there are two kinds of cable theft. The first is active/premium theft. This is when you go out of your way to get access to cable—whether it’s through direct manipulation of a cable company’s equipment, or use of a privately acquired cable box that’s been tampered with— and unscramble those arousing images of pulsating, convulsing, and sweaty hard bodies on the upper channels that so many guys covet. (I personally don’t care for MMA programming.) Regardless, that’s not the type of cable theft we’re dealing with. The second type of theft, the one you’re describing, is passive theft. That’s when you just plug a cable into your TV and—poof!—you’re suddenly binging on a show that features Vanilla Ice choosing between Eggplant and Purple Lotus color swatches for his powder room. Sound familiar?

Cable theft has always been a big problem for the cable business. If you thought your cell phone company sucked, think about this: at least the phone company consistently can shut off your service. From my view, it seems that laws had to be made to protect cable companies, simply because they couldn’t figure out how to shut off or control their service very well. It was such a crisis for the industry that, in 2004, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association announced the first (and based on my research, penultimate) National Cable Theft Awareness Week. This was around the same time that major cable companies ran amnesty programs for nefarious cable thieves to turn themselves in without penalty or being publicly shamed. That’s right. Amnesty. The same word associated with a reprieve from political persecution or major tax evasion—that word also applies to recliner-bound bootleggers of HGTV shows such as Property Brothers Eat Pappardelle in Slow Motion and Designer Court: Carpets v. Drapes.

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States generally fall into one of two categories on passive cable theft laws. Some states have statutes that solely address cable television theft. The states with these laws that I’ve seen—Alabama, North Carolina, and Wisconsin come to mind—make your revelry in misappropriated middle-brow house porn illegal on a two-second read of the law. Other states—Florida, for example—often cram all services and utilities into one statute, which can make things a little harder to read, but essentially end up stating that it’s illegal to take a service that you’re not paying for, including cable.

On the Federal level, passive cable theft is also expressly illegal by statute, which is backed up by fines and jail time, and also provides civil remedies to the cable companies. Let’s just stop for a minute and relish in how it would feel to have the clout to be able to pursue someone with criminal and civil penalties for taking something you were spewing into that person’s private home simply because you forgot to turn it off (or accidentally turned it on). Amazing.

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Are there complications? Of course. If your lease provides the rules on cable and how it’s paid, you may end up owing your landlord if the cable company goes after them. You could always argue that you followed the rules, but the landlord could come back with an argument that—absent the landlord’s negligence—you were unjustly enriched with hours of watching Bang for your Buck, Cousins Undercover, Holmes Makes it Right, and The Jennie Garth Project. (Note: These are actual titles of HGTV shows, not late night Cinemax movies.) But I doubt it would get to that point—we’re talking about the reasonable cost of basic cable here.

So, yes, receiving cable in the way you’re doing it likely violates the laws of your state and the federal government. Should you tell the cable company? You may want to talk to your landlord first, especially since the initial cable contract appears to have been between the landlord and the cable company, and not with each tenant in your building. If that doesn’t work, it may not hurt to hurl yourself onto the sovereign steps of Comcast and make a plea for amnesty. It’s the least you can do for implicitly admitting you have a small addiction to Make My Tiny House a McMansion.


Ask a Lawyer is a practicing lawyer with over 15 years of broad legal experience. He is part of the team at Unwonk Podcast and can be found on Twitter. I really like people I quote here, but that doesn’t mean I endorse them, because ... I’m a lawyer. Keep in mind that this is general information, and not formal legal advice or legal representation; if you need any of that, you should get it from a lawyer in real life, not an internet column. A legal problem is serious and fact-specific, and you should treat it accordingly. But you have common sense and already knew that.

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