Energy theft: are we doing enough to prevent this crime?

Lloyd Birkhead, group managing director at utility revenue protection and field service specialists, Grosvenor Services Group, part of Echo Managed Services.

Tampering with an energy meter to save on bills is a serious offence that poses financial implications and safety threats to the general public across the UK. Given this, it’s an issue that public sector Energy Managers, particularly those working within the social housing sector, need to be mindful of and be prepared to play their part in tackling this crime.

Every year, it is estimated £400 million worth of gas and electricity is stolen as a result of energy theft. This is adding £20 onto the average household’s annual bill – an extra sum that stretches people’s – sometimes already tight – budgets.

More importantly, it also causes one death or serious injury every 10 days in the UK, due to electric shocks, fires and even gas explosions caused as a result of tampering with energy meters.

The industry is already doing positive work to tackle the offence; for example, Crimestoppers set up its Stay Energy Safe campaign. This aims to educate people on the dangers of meter tampering and provide the public with a 24/7 anonymous report line to flag suspected incidences. The creation of the UK Revenue Protection Association has also brought together companies involved in detecting and dealing with meter tampering across the country – and helped them collaborate to be more effective. These efforts, along with various other projects, helped lead to the investigation of around 150,000 suspected counts of stolen gas and electricity last year. However, in regards to gas theft, this is still below the overall industry expected standard for detecting and reporting this crime. According to recent figures, the sector met just 67% of its obligation under Ofgem’s gas theft incentive scheme in 2017-18.

There are myriad of reasons why people are driven to commit energy theft – from criminal activities such as cannabis cultivation to simple unwillingness to pay their share for ‘extras’ like heated swimming pools. Yet, when it comes to public sector housing, in which 72% of tenants fall within the lowest income quintiles, affordability is often the main motivator. Energy managers must, therefore, bear this in mind when tackling meter tampering within social housing and tailor their strategies accordingly.

From making homes more energy efficient – in a bid to reduce household bills and make them more affordable – to raising local awareness levels around the safety implications of a tampered meter, there is always more that can be done to crack down on this problem.

Here we shall explore a few ways to prevent future tampers from taking place within the public rental sector.

Raising consumer awareness

Despite the potentially life-threatening consequences posed by energy theft, our research found that more than a third (39%) of the public is oblivious to its safety risks – a concerning figure.

This can leave vulnerable social housing residents in a position where they may become targets for ‘professional’ meter tamperers, who target their services at low-income families for a fee. Without properly understanding the dangers of this crime, tenants could be more open to such services and unknowingly put their family and neighbours’ lives at risk.

There is a real opportunity to engage with these customers by creating and distributing specific safety messaging. Placing adverts in local job centres and creating sponsored social media campaigns are both worthwhile avenues to explore.

Another issue is that – even amongst those who are familiar with energy theft – many do not grasp its severity. For example, despite 60% of people being aware that meter tampering causes a risk to public safety, only 40% said this would be their main motivator for reporting it.

This suggests that a significant proportion of people do not consider harm to be very likely or probable; perhaps partly due to low levels of media coverage about the crime. For instance, even if it is highly suspected a gas explosion has been caused as a result of a tampered meter, the media will not report this without 100% proof. It is, therefore, crucial to clarify these risks, even to those individuals who claim to already know about them.

Converting the non-reporters

As well as raising awareness levels, it is important that once people spot a tamper, they report it to the relevant authorities. However, we found that, despite 92% of the public acknowledging that energy theft is morally wrong, only just over half (54%) would report a known instance without question. This is because many would be worried about the personal repercussions of reporting an incident and others simply would not know how to do so.

To help increase reporting rates, clarity and anonymity are key. Highlighting confidential reporting lines like Crimestoppers’ Stay Energy Safe helpline is a good way to promote this. Customers could also be informed about other reporting options such as contacting the UK Revenue Protection Association (UKRPA), over the phone or online, or the fact they can contact their energy supplier directly. Raising the profile of such schemes and properly educating people about the reality of reporting could help to convert up to 63% of ‘non-reporters’.

Furthermore, the industry cannot assume that every member of the public is on the same side when it comes to energy theft. As it stands, 44% of people wouldn’t report energy theft because they’d be worried about potential personal repercussions. Whilst this is a disappointing finding, and one that increased profiling and education could look to reduce, ultimately there will always be people who won’t report energy theft for one reason or another. Hence, we must maintain momentum on high-quality inspections to pick up any unreported tampers that otherwise would remain undetected.

Unity is key

There is no denying that the sector is working to tackle energy theft, but there is always more that can be done to fight such a dangerous crime.

To increase efforts, as a sector, we must work together with communities. For instance, comprehensive training for housing association officers, as well as energy supplier agreements that remove any costs levied for remedial work could have a huge impact on making these environments safer. Also, getting the general public involved in this process will help increase awareness levels and ultimately boost the number of people looking out for tampered meters.

It is also worth taking into consideration that affordability is a major consideration for many public sector occupants. For them, energy theft could be seen as a necessity, not an option. Raising awareness of affordability and payment support schemes is crucial; alongside ensuring homes are more energy efficient. At the same time, working to proactively identify and engage with customers struggling with payments could help prevent criminal behaviour before it begins.

Energy theft is an ongoing problem that needs to be given the attention it requires. Turning a blind eye is simply not an option with all of the safety threats it poses. If efforts are increased within the public housing sector to prevent this offence, this could be a massive step forward and could help prevent tragic implications before they occur.

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