In criminal law, theft of services refers to a type of crime that may be committed when a person uses a service without providing proper compensation for the service. For instance, a person who uses force, intimidation, deceit, or some other unlawful means to obtain a service, then their actions may constitute a theft of service offense.
This type of crime may also occur when a person intentionally fails to pay a company for its services and continues taking advantage of them until the company demands payment or stops providing the service. Additionally, a theft of service crime can happen when a person deliberately re-routes a service that is already being paid for by another customer and uses the service without paying either the company or the other party.
Some other ways that theft of services can occur include:
- When the parties have a miscommunication, such as if a company believes that a customer is already paying for the service and the customer thinks that they are being charged automatically;
- By accident like if a person is in a public space and is using a WiFi connection that does not belong to the public; and/or
- When a person genuinely does not know that what they are doing is a form of theft.
In order to report theft of services crimes, a person or entity will need to review the laws of the state in which they are reporting the crime as well as the related requirements to do so. Generally speaking, however, the individual reporting the crime will need to determine whether they are dealing with a felony or misdemeanor offense.
For example, a theft of service crime will most likely result in felony charges if the value of services stolen amounts to more than $10,000. On the other hand, theft of service crimes that add up to more than $500, but less than $10,000, will be considered a misdemeanor offense. Again, these amounts are strictly rough guidelines. Each state will have its own specific values to define the type of crime.
Once the individual has established whether the theft of service offense constitutes a felony or a misdemeanor crime, then they can proceed with the actual reporting process. For felonies, it is best if the individual contacts law enforcement directly and does not delay resolution of the issue.
In contrast, if it is a misdemeanor crime and the individual is the one who has been affected, then they may file a lawsuit in their local small claims court. If the lawsuit is successful, the individual may be reimbursed for any financial losses they suffered due to the theft of service action.
To prevail on the lawsuit, the individual must be able to present sufficient evidence that proves the services were stolen. Therefore, make sure to gather enough evidence before you file a claim for theft of services in court.
What Are Some Examples of Theft of Services?
Some examples of real-world scenarios that could be considered theft of service crimes include the following:
- Using hardware or software that illegally diverts WiFi and/or cable services to the person’s residence;
- Not paying bills for services like WiFi or cable after they have been installed (note that whether a person does this deliberately or by mistake will not matter since both will qualify as this sort of crime);
- Evading payment of medical or hospital bills;
- Adjusting an electric or gas meter that is connected to a person’s home for the purposes of decreasing the amount they will have to pay each month on utility bills;
- Riding public transportation without paying for a ticket or the appropriate fees (like a stowaway);
- Failing to pay for repair services, such as home renovation costs, car mechanic fees, or landscaping expenses;
- Using someone else’s credit card to pay for services;
- Staying at a hotel or similar hospitality service (e.g., motels, hostels, Airbnb, etc.) and checking out before paying the bill;
- Drinking or eating at a restaurant establishment and skipping out on the check (better known as the act of “dining and dashing”); and
- Finally, forging or providing a fraudulent copy of a bill to trick a service provider into thinking the person has already paid for the services, pays less than they actually do, or pays more than they usually do, so they can get extra services.
In the event that a person has committed any of the above acts, they should be aware that they could be charged with theft of services and may have to face serious legal consequences.
What Are the Penalties for Theft of Services?
As previously mentioned, the laws and procedural requirements for theft of services will depend on the state in which the crime is being tried. Accordingly, the types of penalties that a court may issue can change based on the jurisdiction.
In general, the majority of theft of services crimes are charged as larceny, which is then further divided into two categories: felony larceny or misdemeanor larceny.
If a person is convicted on misdemeanor larceny charges, then they may have to pay a certain amount of criminal fines to the state. The person may also need to serve jail time for up to one full year. The amount of criminal fines and the length of jail time will be contingent on the surrounding circumstances.
On other hand, persons who receive a conviction on felony larceny charges will likely face much harsher penalties. They may need to pay a higher amount of criminal fines and/or serve a prison sentence for at least a year or longer. These numbers can increase if the defendant is a repeat offender, a violent felony offense was committed in conjunction with the theft of service crime, and/or if the value of services stolen was higher than normal for such crimes.
In addition to receiving criminal penalties, a victim of the crime may also pursue monetary damages by suing the defendant in civil court. In which case, a defendant may have to pay for both criminal and civil fines, as well as any damages awarded by the court.
Are There Any Defenses to Theft of Services?
There are a number of different legal defenses that a defendant might potentially be able to raise against a charge or claim for theft of services.
For instance, a defendant may argue that they lacked intent or the level of intent required by state law for it to qualify as a theft of services. Depending on the facts of a case, the defendant could also argue that they were entitled to receive the services if they have evidence like receipts that prove they already paid for them.
Additionally, if there is enough evidence, the defendant may petition the court to have the case dropped or their charges reduced. For example, if the defendant is charged with felony larceny, but they can prove that the amount of services stolen only rose to the level of a misdemeanor crime, then the court may decide to lower the charges from that of a felony to a misdemeanor crime.
Lastly, if a defendant was forced to commit a theft of service or else they would suffer physical harm, then the defendant may be able to raise coercion as a legal defense. Again, the types of defenses that a defendant might be able to raise will be contingent on the laws of their jurisdiction.
What Type of Evidence Is Needed When Raising a Theft of Service Defense?
Some types of evidence that may be needed to raise a successful theft of service defense include the following:
- Any documents that support the defendant’s theory. For example, if they are claiming that they are entitled to receive the services, then they will need to show proof of receipts, paid service bills, witness statements from a service provider’s billing department, and so forth.
- In some cases, such as those involving physical hardware, a defendant may want to use videos or pictures that would support that they either could not have feasibly diverted the services or never did divert them.
It is important that paying customers keep receipts of their utility bills and other services. Today, most service providers offer the option of paperless billing. A customer may want to enroll in the option, so that they will have access to electronic receipts. This can make it easier to print out if a person needs to use it as evidence.
Finally, aside from supporting a legal defense theory, such documents can also serve to protect a person against false or fraudulent claims made by other parties.
Should I Contact an Attorney for Theft of Services Charge?
If you have been charged for theft of services, then it may be in your best interest to hire a local criminal attorney as soon as possible. An experienced criminal defense attorney can perform legal research to determine if there are any legal defenses that you can raise against the charges. Your attorney can also make sure that your rights as a criminal defendant are sufficiently protected and will be able to provide legal representation in court.
Alternatively, if you need to file charges for theft of services, you may want to consider consulting a lawyer to ensure that you comply with the proper procedures and are not in violation of any laws. Your lawyer can also assist you in filing a civil lawsuit against another party to recover damages if they determine that you have a viable claim and strong evidence to support it.