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Defining theft of services

Say the word "theft" in New York City, and most would give as examples a person swiping another's purse or wallet, or breaking into a home to steal all of its valuables. In reality, there are actually many different forms of theft, some of which many may not perceive to be stealing, yet can still leave those accused of them facing serious criminal penalties. 

For example, obtaining any sort of normally compensable benefit without paying is referred to as "theft of services." Section 165.15 of New York's Penal Laws defines theft of services as one willfully and knowingly: 

  • Using a stolen debit or credit card to pay for a service
  • Refusing or attempting to avoid paying for a meal at a restaurant
  • Refusing or attempting to avoid paying for transportation costs
  • Gaining access to a movie, concert or theater performance without paying
  • Using the business resources of another with no intention of providing compensation
  • Utilizing electronic services without paying 

Utility theft is another common form of theft of services (indeed, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that as much as $6 billion in electricity is stolen annually). The more common methods of utility theft recognized by the law include illegally accessing utility connections, tampering with a meter or diverting utility flow away from a measuring device, or selling access devices on existing, canceled or revoked accounts. 

It should be noted that in order to qualify as theft, the aforementioned offenses must be committed intentionally. Thus, one who believes he or she is gaining access to a utility legally may not be at fault if such access is later discovered to be provided unlawfully. The same may be true of one who gains access to services or resources with the reasonable or legitimate presumption that they are free (or were previously paid for).  

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