How to spot the signs of energy meter tampering and the action you can take
With the price of UK gas and electricity rising at an alarming rate, it has been widely reported that a record number of people are now engaged in ‘stealing’ energy as they seek to find alternative ways to reduce their energy bills.
Unfortunately, ‘meter tampering’ and ‘meter removal’ services are relatively common occurrences and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) is now seeing them with increasing frequency.
Such energy theft often results in property damage and, in some of the worst cases, injury and death. Unfortunately SFRS has first-hand experience of the tragic circumstances that can occur when energy meters have been tampered with.
SFRS is therefore now engaging with communities to discourage this dangerous act and make people aware of the significant risks attached to energy theft and meter tampering.
Despite being a highly dangerous undertaking, the actual act of bypassing an energy meter is often taken by individuals living and working in their own premises, sometimes using footage widely available on social media.
Other unscrupulous individuals also offer a bypass-type service for a fee – putting householders in incredible danger.
SELECT Members will be all too aware that these practices increase the risk of electric shock and fire, as often the methods used are extremely dangerous and the people involved have no or very limited knowledge, skill or understanding of electricity.
As you’ll see elsewhere on these pages, a number of national campaigns are now under way to make people aware of the risks and discourage tampering with energy meters. As part of this, SELECT Members are also being urged to report anything suspicious when carrying out work in premises.
The tell-tale signs of tampering
Visually, there can be many signs to indicate that energy meters have been tampered with. These include:
Scratch, burn or carbonisation marks on cables and meters
Exposed copper wiring and loose connections
Missing security seals and bogus seals
Meters that are distressed, with additional cables connected to supply and load
Holes in credit meters
Use of insulation piercing connectors or line tap
Stub joints in supply cables
Suspicious devices connected to meter, e.g. insulated blocks
Negative monetary values on the meter’s digital display.
The most common type of tampering that SFRS has observed through attendance post-fire is the practice of meter bypassing by introducing a ‘bridge wire’ across live and load meter terminals. This is most frequent where prepayment meters are installed.
When the terminal covers are removed, a cable is inserted into the terminal connections, bypassing the internal mechanism that registers the energy used.
As well as the potential for electric shock, this also causes a potential fire risk as the bridge wire is unlikely to be able to withstand the electrical load passing through it. Invariably, the connection is poor, the conductor heats up, the insulation breaks down and fire can occur.
Various items other than cable have also been observed to create the bridge, including metal scissors and metal cutlery – all which are exposed and live. I’m sure some SELECT Members will have their own experiences of seeing such items.
Other methods of bypass include ‘direct to mains incoming supply’ where a cable is used to fully bypass the meter, often with no fuse protection to the consumer unit as the main service fuse is removed.
It goes without saying that any such interference with an electricity supply carries a risk of serious injury or death to anyone in or around the property involved.
As the cost of living crisis deepens this winter, the SFRS will continue to work closely with its partners to help prevent injury to both property and people.
We’re currently delivering fire safety campaigns to support those most vulnerable in our communities who are impacted by increased energy costs, which will reinforce the risks of energy theft and meter bypassing.
SELECT Members can play their part too, particularly with the vulnerable people in our communities who are most at risk. As a tradesperson, you may observe dangerous practices in a person’s home or workplace and should then take the appropriate steps to mitigate the risks.
It’s important that SFRS and our partners continue to work together to educate the public on the risks involved and reduce the likelihood of electric shock, fire, injury or death where possible.
SFRS has established the Electrical Safety Working Group that includes representation from SELECT, Electrical Safety First and other trade bodies. By working together, sharing information, providing sound advice and taking corrective steps to mitigate risks, we are helping to make our communities safer.
Fire Investigation Officers Watch Commander, Scottish Fire and Rescue Service
High price of ‘bargain’ bills
The cost of living crisis has also seen a rise in desperate consumers being offered dangerous devices that claim to save on electricity bills.
Unscrupulous online traders say the gizmos, which are designed to be plugged into a domestic socket-outlet, can provide an energy saving or reduction in electricity costs of up to 35%.
But an investigation by Electrical Safety First (ESF) found no evidence of such savings – with some of the devices being dangerously substandard and posing a risk of fire and electric shock.
The charity bought four devices that claimed to either save energy or “stabilise electrical current” and sent them to an independent lab for specialist testing.
As well as making no difference to power consumption, all four failed basic safety standards, with one exploding during a short circuit test, sending fragments of hot glowing metal into the air.
Others demonstrated basic failures in design, including the size and dimension of plug pins, with the pins so badly positioned on one, the user risked damaging the socket-outlet trying to insert it.
Lesley Rudd, Chief Executive of ESF, said: “Claims surrounding energy savings will undoubtably be more attractive to people at this time, yet the devices we tested could cost you your safety. Given the current climate and hardship people are facing, the safety failures in these devices are even more contemptible. We urge everyone to buy from a reputable retailer you know and trust to protect yourself .”
ESF has shared its findings with the Advertising Standards Authority and the Office for Product Safety & Standards, with eBay removing nearly 150 listings for such products.
ESF offers consumer information on how to stay safe and save money, including heating and running appliances. For more information visit www.electricalsafetyfirst.org.uk/costofliving
Spotting the danger signs
Crimestoppers is running its high-profile Stay Energy Safe campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of meter tampering.
The initiative advises contractors and consumers how to spot if an electricity or gas meter has been interfered with and how to speak up and stay safe.
A spokesman said: “Meter tampering risks are too high to ignore. Not only is it theft, which can lead to a fine or a prison sentence, but it is extremely dangerous and can cause injury, death and major damage to property.”
The campaign is urging anyone who finds evidence of meter tampering to contact Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 023 2777. For more information on the campaign itself, visit www.stayenergysafe.co.uk
The SELECT verdict
The Energy Networks Association has revealed an almost 400% increase in reported meter tampering incidents in the UK between 2017 and 2021, so it’s clear that this is a very real threat.
Such interference has already caused fires and electrocutions, with offenders seemingly unaware – or not caring – that it can create a ticking time bomb.
SELECT Members who come across such interference can play their part and take appropriate action to mitigate risk.
In practice, this would be to highlight any deficiencies with the supply intake equipment generally. In the first instance this should be done, preferably in writing, to the person ordering the work. To help, SELECT Members can use the Notification of Dangerous Electrical Conditions books, which can be ordered from the SELECT website. The person ordering the work then has a responsibility to inform the appropriate authority, such as the relevant Distribution Network Organisation or the electricity supplier.
To report a dangerous condition to the power supply company, the normal method would be to use their emergency contact number 105. Alternatively, the supplier’s existing contact number may be used, e.g. SPEN Central & Southern Scotland 0800 092 9290. Information may be also available on the relevant supplier website, e.g. www.scottishpower.co.uk or www.ssen.co.uk