Lauren Bravo asks...
What is energy theft and what’s being done about it?
Our intrepid writer Lauren Bravo spends a day with the British Gas Revenue Protection Unit to find out how they stop energy thieves in their tracks.
In May, on the warmest day of the year so far, I’m wearing safety shoes and a stab vest. I feel like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. It’s not my usual choice of outfit, but then this isn’t my usual job – I’m on the road with the British Gas Revenue Protection Unit. Today we’re off to see a shopkeeper who it’s believed has been doing a form of shoplifting relating to energy.
The industry estimates that a whopping £400 million worth of gas and electricity is stolen every year in the UK, a loss that adds around £20 to every honest customer’s bill. It’s an industry-wide issue and British Gas detects 65% of all energy theft cases – more than 10,000 cases a year.
My companions for the day are Iain and Malcolm from the Revenue Protection Unit, who spend their days tracking down energy theft in businesses and homes, and remedying illegal connections. It’s a job that involves sleuthing skills and diplomacy, working with the police to see each case through from detection to completion. For the biggest offenders, this can include a prison sentence.
“Do you ever get scared?” I ask. “Not so much, because we never put ourselves at risk. We’re fully trained to deal with difficult situations,” says Malcolm.
As a law-abiding luddite, I imagined it would take a lot of technical knowledge to rig up an illegal meter or tamper with a gas supply. But in fact it’s becoming more straightforward for people to steal energy, thanks to (what else?) the internet. Underhand tips and sly tutorials can be easily found and even DIY meters can be bought online.
Although the means might be easier, the penalties are still tough. On today’s visit the perpetrator is presented with a bill on the spot for everything he owes, plus charges for the call-out and safe replacement of the meter – a sum that would rinse my overdraft three times over. Iain and Malcolm are polite but firm: pay up, or be disconnected. And after a valiant attempt at haggling, he pays.
What’s the biggest bill they’ve seen? £72,000 at a hotel... £183,000 at a supermarket… oh, and a man who had been using an illegal meter since 1923.
Malcolm tells me that many offenders see it as a victimless crime. “They think, in the same way as shoplifters, that it’s a big company so it doesn’t impact on anything. But of course it does. It makes an impact on everyone else’s bills, and they don’t understand the dangers.”
The RPU isn’t just trying to claim back that money on behalf of British Gas customers, they’re also trying to keep everyone safe. “You’ve got risk of explosion, risk of electric shock, risk of fire…”, Malcolm lists. He’s seen some horrendous things such as cannabis farms with doors wired to give electric shocks and a nursing home where the owner was running his gas meter in reverse.
“It was leaking gas, and no more than two feet away was an arcing electric meter,” winces Iain. “The whole place could have gone up instantly.”
Energy theft often occurs in a run of similar businesses, such as fast food takeaways, looking for a way to undercut each other. “They’re buying their meat from the same places, they’re selling it as cheaply as they can, and they need to compete with the shop next door to make a profit,” says Malcolm.
The London street we’re visiting today is a familiar spot to the Revenue Protection Unit, where illegal meters and tampered supplies are often the result of skill-sharing and favours between neighbours. “We’ve even found ads for it in local papers, promising to ‘reduce your bills legally’,” says Iain. “It’s brazen.”
But beyond the more predictable patterns, cases can vary widely, from small business owners to shady enterprises and even wealthy people using stolen energy to heat their two swimming pools. It’s a spectrum that Iain and Malcolm neatly sum up as “the needy to the greedy.”
Is the job emotionally hard? “Yes, it can be,” says Iain. “You come across people who are struggling, and they feel it’s worth taking the risk. But I’ve visited people from all walks of life – you name it, I’ve come across them. They all have an excuse.”
Today’s visit is no exception; the shop owner’s story changes quicker than an Eastenders’ storyline, but with less drama. And once he’s paid his dues and been safely reconnected, it’s all relieved smiles and polite handshakes.
“Although they’ve committed an offence, they’re still customers,” says Malcolm. “We’re just trying to keep them in the right.”
And stopping energy theft in its tracks means more power (or less expensive power) for the honest customers. How illuminating.
If you suspect someone is stealing energy, call British Gas’s confidential helpline on 0800 587 2737.