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Lloyd Birkhead asks: Are we doing enough to tackle energy theft?

Energy theft is a serious – and woefully underreported – problem for energy companies and consumers alike. The financial impact of meter tampering is well-documented, with industry experts estimating that more than £400 million worth of electricity and gas is stolen each year, adding £20 to the average household bill.

More importantly, there is the issue of consumer safety to consider, with meter tampering putting consumers at risk of electric shocks, fires and even life-threatening gas explosions.

There’s already a great deal of positive work being done within the sector to combat the issue, such as the Energy Theft & Tip Off Service, Crimestoppers’ Stay Energy Safe campaign, and through the UK Revenue Protection Association. However, given the moral obligations to our customers, as well as ongoing supply licence commitments to Ofgem, are we – as a sector – doing enough to publicise the good work we do to both investigate and prevent energy theft?

Equally importantly, should we be doing more? The answer to this question is surely a resounding yes. Today’s picture is a highly inconsistent one, with varying degrees of commitment and activity across the sector – including energy suppliers, Distribution Network Operators (DNOs) and service providers – in the fight against energy theft.

Converting the ‘non-reporters’
Unsurprisingly, the general public is overwhelmingly in favour of more action being taken against energy thieves. Our research into consumer attitudes towards energy theft found that 92 per cent of consumers believe energy theft is wrong, with the main reasons cited that it is a criminal act (35 per cent), morally unethical (28 per cent) and unfair to paying customers (23 per cent).

Despite this, however, we found that a surprising number of consumers would not – or simply could not – report energy theft should they come across it. While some are unwilling to report out of sympathy, or even loyalty to a friend or family member, it is more often the case that the public simply does not know where to turn. While 58 per cent of the public choose to contact their energy supplier, awareness drops rapidly thereafter, with only 13 per cent of consumers knowing of specialist reporting lines, such as Crimestoppers’ Stay Energy Safe for example.

We all need to do more to ensure clarity; making certain that customers are aware that they can make reports directly to their supplier, or to the UK Revenue Protection Association (UKRPA) over the phone or online. Many consumers may also prefer to stay anonymous – 44 per cent of customers we surveyed told us that they may not report a tamper due fear of personal repercussions. High-visibility customer signposting towards confidential reporting lines, such as Stay Energy Safe, could therefore be crucial in converting more ‘non-reporters’.

Furthermore, 11 per cent of consumers believe that there is no point to reporting energy theft as nothing will be done about the incident. This points to a need for the sector to more clearly demonstrate the positive impact reporting energy theft has. Rather than keep the great work we do to ourselves, we should let the public know about the resulting meter changeovers, arrests and convictions.

In particular, we should proactively champion how our action has protected the public from serious – sometimes fatal – injuries and helped keep rising energy bills down.

Raising awareness of the safety risks
Considering that energy theft can lead to serious burns, electric shocks and even street-wide gas explosions, it’s incredibly concerning that more than a third (39 per cent) of the general public has no comprehension of the dangers they face.

Consumer awareness is particularly low in the 18-24 age bracket, with 53 per cent having no idea of the safety threats posed by meter tampering. Many people in this age group may have moved home for the first time recently (e.g. into privately-rented student accommodation) and, considering that consumers are most likely to come across signs of energy theft when moving into a new property, this lack of awareness could be a ticking time-bomb.

Given the varying levels of awareness across different age brackets, individual demographics could perhaps be targeted with specific safety messaging. For example, providers could work in partnership with colleges and universities to provide leaflets and awareness campaigns to better reach segments where awareness levels are at their lowest.

Spotting the signs of a tamper
While a tampered meter will often be obvious to experienced field agents, three quarters of the general public (75 per cent) would not be able to confidently spot the signs that a meter has been interfered with.

Some indicators of energy theft, such as partially warm radiators and flue gasses at properties with no registered consumption, are not immediately obvious, and will likely be missed by many outside of trained, inquisitive field agents. However, given ongoing sector commitments – such as the nationwide smart meter rollout – which take up vital field resource, we simply cannot be everywhere at once.

Of course, constraints such as this can be eased by deploying non-technical resource, to investigate suspected tampers. In our experience, non-technical resource can effectively carry out up to 75 per cent of field visits – essentially all outside the most complex – with similar or even better outcomes to specialised engineers.

Another positive, resource-effective way to increase awareness of energy theft, and visibility of our field teams, is to become more involved on a community level, forging strong relationships with key property-facing third-party groups; for example, local authorities, estate agents, meter readers and field-based debt collection agencies.

It’s time to work together
While there is a clear willingness – and some fantastic work being done – by the industry to tackle energy theft, this is simply not enough in isolation.

Not only must we work more closely with the public to raise awareness and combat energy theft, we should even perhaps go further and use our influence and expertise to challenge the current status quo, wherein there is no prosecution for a first offence, and where the offender is simply required to pay back what’s owed without a further fine or levy on top. When considering the potential public dangers involved with meter cheating, could – and should – we lobby for more stringent measures?

Such an act would send a powerful message to the public that their safety – rather than lost income from tampered meters – is our absolute top priority and perhaps encourage more people to come forward should they spot a tamper, as well as engender the unified spirit so needed to put an end to energy theft, once and for all.

The media will also be crucial in raising the profile of energy theft. As it stands, just under one in seven (14 per cent) consumers remember seeing media coverage of meter cheating in the past year. To increase this figure, the onus is both on us to embark upon more proactive public campaigns, and the media to (hopefully) support our efforts in raising public awareness.

Just as energy theft is a life-threatening crime which adversely affects us all, so too is it up to us all to fight it – together.

Echo Managed Services
Lloyd Birkhead is group managing director at utility debt collection and field service specialists, Grosvenor Services Group, part of Echo Managed Services. Echo Managed Services is a specialist outsourced provider of complex multi-channel customer contact services, comprehensive debt recovery solutions and the developer of the market leading water customer care and billing system, RapidXtra.

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