Utility companies key in helping crack down on marijuana grow houses

Criminals siphon $10K in stolen energy per month
Posted at 7:04 PM, Oct 19, 2016
and last updated 2016-10-19 19:04:19-04

In an effort to crack down on marijuana grow houses, an expert with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office revealed some of the key signs investigators use to track the illegal operations. 

HCSO runs a full-time squad dedicated to dismantling grow houses. County deputies have busted 38 so far in 2016. 

"We are going to attack these grow houses aggressively and if you're operating a grow house in Hillsborough county, we're coming after you," said Maj. Frank Losat. 

Maj. Losat says residents should keep their eyes open for suspicious activity like darkened windows, no one living in the house full-time, and shoddy or amateur-looking electrical work. 

"There's going to be wires coming off the roof into the soffit, that's not normal," said Maj. Losat. "There's piping running from the green, electrical transformer boxes."

ABC Action News discovered, energy use is a common clue for investigators. Traditionally, companies will take note of tampered digital readers on power boxes, extremely high or low usage, and illegal re-wiring to steal electricity. 

"They have tapped into our system, tapped into our lines and are essentially stealing electricity from all Tampa electric customers," said Cherie Jacobs with TECO. 

TECO helps identify 15 to 20 marijuana grow houses every year.  Criminals often siphon up to $10,000 worth of electricity per house every month. 

"This is extremely hazardous," said Jacobs. "This can kill you very quickly, so the fact that they're not only doing this, not only illegally, in such a hazardous way is very concerning."

Once a grow house is busted, Jacobs says TECO successfully seeks restitution for stolen electricity about 40% of the time. The rest of the cost stemming from stolen energy is paid for by customers.