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by paul holley

photo by Mark Hertzberg

cutline: Kevin Anthony, TeleCable general manager, modles T-shirt used to snare illegal cable users.

A free "Sci Fi Channel" T-shirt offer was pure science fiction.

But the stunt helped catch at least a half-dozen households that were illegally receiving Racine TeleCable service last week.

Kevin Anthony, TeleCable general manager, said the "Sci Fi Channel," a new cable TV network featuring vintage science fiction movies and TV shows, was presented on a channel with a deliberately scrambled signal. The only viewers who could receive the programming were those using illegal signal decoding equipment.

To catch the cheaters, TeleCable periodically ran a printed message across the screen which offered a free "Sci Fi Channel" T-shirt to those who called a toll-free telephone number. Because that number rang in TeleCable's Racine offices, viewers who thought they were getting a free shirt were actually turning themselves in.

Anthony said the test nabbed six to eight cable pirates. Racine TeleCable crews disconnected the cheaters or placed "traps" to prevent users from receiving cable channels without paying.

The cable company will periodically check back with households suspected of cheating and start prosecution if necessary, he said.

The T-shirt offer was more popular than Racine TeleCable officials expected. Anthony said the telephone number also fielded calls from Burlington and Oshkosh - communities far from Racine TeleCable's coverage area. He speculated that the out-of-town callers got the number from friends.

The T-shirts and the "Sci Fi Channel" aren't completely fictional. Anthony said he has a limited number of shirts on hand to give to customers who may have legitimately received the programming during a different test last Sunday. TeleCable may also add the new channel in the future.

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