Pulling the plug: how to spot the hidden signs of energy theft

By Lloyd Birkhead, group managing director at utility debt collection and field service specialists, Grosvenor Services Group, part of Echo Managed Services

Tampering with an energy meter to save on utility bills is a serious crime. However, despite many people being aware of the practice, there is still a widespread lack of understanding across the UK about the devastating effects it can cause.

Energy theft has the potential to cause electric shocks, fires, street-wide gas explosions and leads to at least one serious injury or death every 10 days in the UK.

Currently, statistics show that there are 150,000 cases of energy theft investigated in the UK every year, amounting to over £400m in stolen electricity and gas annually. This stresses the true scale of the problem and highlights that more needs to be done to crack down on this crime.

However, despite these concerning figures, our new research has found that only one in four people (25 per cent) know how to spot the major tell-tale signs of a tampered energy meter. This is mainly due to a lack of awareness; compounded by the fact that many indications are covert and can be missed by the untrained eye. Moreover, many meters are not on show, meaning they must be actively sought out for investigation. This removes many opportunities for anomalies or issues to be spotted ad hoc.

Considering the potentially fatal consequences of meter tampering, knowing how to spot these signs – such as a back-to-front meter or a rubber tube where the meter’s pipes should be – could mean the difference between life or death.

Although the majority of housing professionals will already have a degree of knowledge on this subject, regular reminders are key. It’s also important to stay up-to-date with the latest information, as perpetrators of the crime are constantly looking to find new ways to flout the law. With this in mind, let’s look at the main indications of a tampered energy meter that all landlords must be looking out for and educating tenants on, too.

Getting to know the meter
In order to detect any suspicious meter tampering, it is important to know what to look for. There are many complex signs of energy theft that are usually only detected by trained professionals. However, the below provides an overview of key indicators:

  1. A back to front meter – the meter has been turned the wrong way so the normal dials are not visible
  2. Rubber piping – there are bits of rubber tubing where pipes should be
  3. Working but no credit – the meter shows that the credit has run out, but gas or electricity is still running
  4. Smell of gas – there is a smell of gas near the meter box
  5. Dial has disappeared – there is no longer a visible dial or counter on the meter
  6. Meter dial is not moving – the meter dials are not moving even when gas or electricity is being used

In the case of one or more of the above indications being present, it is highly likely that the device has been tampered with and could pose a fatal risk to those within the property and the surrounding areas.

What action can you take?

Spotting the signs is not enough. It is equally essential that the crime is reported and steps are taken to prevent it occurring again in the future. But how to do this?

  1. Tweak your processes – educate tenants on spotting a tampered meter, as well as the risks and financial implications, and how to report it. Consider adding a meter check to the move-in and move-out procedures. Leave free guidance for tenants on reporting energy theft if they detect it and stress the fact that tampering by neighbouring occupants can be life-threatening to them, too. Deter potential energy thieves by making it clear you are aware of the issue and include it in your regular checks etc.
  2. Speak up and be accountable – if you suspect it, report it. Our research found that, concerningly, one in four people would turn a blind eye to energy theft – meaning they could unknowingly be putting themselves and many others in danger. Anyone can anonymously report a tampered energy meter to StaySafeEnergy by calling the dedicated 24/7 hotline on 0800 023 2777, or by filling out the online form. However, when taking action, it is important to remain mindful of the fact this could have been caused by the current tenant, or it may have been present when they moved in. For this reason, people should act sensitively and not assume guilt.
  3. Sign up to the UK Revenue Protection Association (UKRPA) Interoperability Protocol – this is aimed at improving safety standards and the identification of energy theft by seeking to raise awareness through education and providing a means of escalation between energy organisations and housing associations. The Interoperability Protocol can be signed up to by housing associations at no cost, except for a commitment to train staff to identify issue, and encourage and educate tenants to report suspected incidents of energy theft. Details can be found here: https://ukrpa.co.uk/

You have an obligation to keep your tenants safe, so it’s vital to be proactive with checks and report any suspicious activity as soon as it is detected. With around five million rented homes across the UK, these measures have the potential to save many lives and prevent an avoidable tragedy.