26/02/2013 Spotlight


26/02/2013

Hard-hitting investigations. Enda McClafferty investigates the scale of electricity fraud across the country and discovers what it means for customers.


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Transcript


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Electricity theft is on the increase. The meter was tampered

:00:11.:00:14.

with. The lights were on burning on here and burning on. There didn't

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care, like. It is putting lives at risk. You are putting a �30 price

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tag on the life of your family for some cheap electric. It's big

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business for the meter cheater we track down. Five, six maybe 10 a

:00:35.:00:39.

week. Is it adds �8 million a year to our bills. I think it's morally

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Apology for the loss of subtitles for 49 seconds

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wrong. I don't think it's something A growing number of people are

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stealing it. It's happening in every community across Northern

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Ireland. Where ever you live, there will be someone willing to bypass

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your meter. They are just a phone call away. I wanted to see how

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difficult it would be to get cheap electricity. We have heard that

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some of these people actually advertise online. I will do a

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search to see what I can find. An ad has popped up on the screen

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offering to help to reduce electricity bills. There is a

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number here, there is also a name. Are you able to help me out at all?

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Are you able to Who was the friend who recommended me? They seemed

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cautious at first. He said the cost would be around �30 or �40

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depending on the area. He had an answer ready when I asked about

:02:35.:02:41.

safety. It's 110% safe. I've done quite a few over the last while

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back. I've never had one problem. That is not the case. Tampering is

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never safe. We asked what if the meter man calls round? I'll explain

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to you. There is nothing out of place. Everything is as you have

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seen it. If you look at your electric box now, that is how you

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will see it. It sounded too good to be true. With contact now

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established, the first part of our undercover sting was in place.

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Electricity transformed life when it first arrived in Northern

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Ireland. It was so precious in the 40's that the Government had to

:03:17.:03:27.
:03:27.:03:27.

warn people not to waste it. NEWSREEL: He see there is is no

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light. He sees there is no tea. He see there is is no breakfast. He is

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late for work. Loses his job because the clock has stopped. This

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is why. It's a power cut. There are few problems with electricity today,

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except for people like John McCarter. Until recently, this was

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how he got his power. Even the most basic of tasks like switching on a

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light involved a trip to his sthod fire up his generator. It -- shed

:03:57.:04:03.

to fire up his generator. It wasn't cheap. To charge up my mobile phone

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took a couple of hours. You look at �4 or �5 to charge up a mobile

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phone. John got power three months ago. It's still very basic. Cable

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ties on the pipe down there. Eventually, ends up down underneath

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here, at what they call the distribution board. What was it

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like, John, being able to flick a switch, to turn on your light to

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have power for the first time in 29 years? Absolutely, amazele couldn't

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believe it. After missing out for most of his life, John McCarter is

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happy to electricity, regardless of cost. I find it very hard to

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believe that people go to the extent of stealing their

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electricity to bypass meters etc. Because, at the end of the day, you

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know, they're getting something that I would consider an essential

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for very little money, why steal it? The rest of us take our

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electricity for granted, but more and more people just want to take

:05:07.:05:16.
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it. I set out to discover what sort of people are using the meter

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cheaters. This house near Enniskillen was rented out and

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without the owner's knowledge, was using as much electricity as a

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small hotel. This is why. It was being used as a cannabis factory. A

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criminal gang had bypassed the meter to run the heat lamps and

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saved themselves around �40,000 in free electricity. This was one of

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30 uncovered in Northern Ireland last year. That cost in total �1.4

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million. We all paid for it. The electricity we use is generated

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from coal, oil or gas. From the power station, it passes along a

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massive network of overheadlines run by Northern Ireland Electricity.

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Once it reaches your home, the supplier takes over and bills the

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customer. The market was opened in 2007 and there are four main

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suppliers, Power NI, Airtricity, Budget Energy and Electric Ireland.

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The industry might have changed, but one key problem remains - how

:06:22.:06:26.

to cover the cost of electricity fraud? For anyone who think it is's

:06:26.:06:31.

a victimless crime, think again. Everyone of us who pays for our

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electricity is footing the bill for fraud. That's the hidden cost. The

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suppliers don't want you to know about. The Consumer Council says

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the system needs to change. Clearly, it's not fair that consumers

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continualy bear the majority of the risk in relation to fraud. Or

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indeed other electricity risk issues because they are always

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passed on to the consumer. That is an issue that the Consumer Council

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has in the past, and will continue to raise within the regulatory

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framework. You think the structure could be changed so as those who

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steal electricity, their bills are not passed on? I think it is

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certainly worth exploring because we don't believe it's fair that

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consumers bear all of the risk in relation to these matters. Eleanor

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McEvoy moved into the electricity market after selling her mobile

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phone business, which had a turnover of 50 million euro. She

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runs Budget Energy, the smallest of the suppliers, with just 4% of the

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market. Unlike the other suppliers, she was willing to speak out.

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sure there are people who are experiencing a loft bad debt

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because of the way the economy is and would be horrified at the idea

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that the number of customers should somehow also pay for all the people

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who are not being paid for. I think it's morally wrong. I don't think

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it's something that should be a common practice. We were interested

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in another common practice, how the meter cheaters operate. To get our

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sting in place, we rented a house and got experts to install a fake

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meter box. Posing as a couple, who had just moved to Belfast, we

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around our meter cheater to come round. We were about to get a rare

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insight into the criminal world of electricity thieves. For the first

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time in the UK one was about to be captured on camera. With hidden

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equipment in place, we secretly filmed him at work. His methods

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might have been basic, but the illegal service he was providing

:08:36.:08:46.
:08:46.:09:09.

seemed to be in big demand. He has a well-rehearsed line for

:09:09.:09:19.
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tricky questions about the Every house has a meter. Pay-as-

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you-go, where you top-up your electricity as it is needed, is

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fast becoming the most popular. Tom Doran is the NIE manager in charge

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of Northern Ireland's meters. He has come across all types of

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tampering. There are various methods from the down right stupid

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tor the more technically advanced. It doesn't matter how technically

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they are, the end result will be the same. Word wrd cheating is a

:09:58.:10:03.

menace for both sides of the community, in housing estates,

:10:03.:10:08.

rural areas and upmarket streets -- electricity. Our own meter cheater,

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who claims he has bypassed 300 houses, say it is's not just people

:10:12.:10:22.
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Retired meter reader, George McFarland, has come across many

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people cheating. People have got greedy. He put back his meter 100

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unions this quarter. He put it back 200 the next quarter. He kept going

:10:57.:11:07.
:11:07.:11:07.

on until he owed virtually nothing. En one case I came across where one

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guy got so greedy he put it back past his previous reading which

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meant we owed him money. So it was flagged up right away. In one case

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a man who lived in a massive house accused of stealing around �34,000

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worth of electricity. He's being prosecuted. We can't tell you who

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they are. They both got off with a warning. If it's your first offence

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and you have the noun pay back, you can avoid the shame of going to

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court. How would you like free electricity for two years? That is

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what the owner of this takaway Gavin Vallely enjoyed after he

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pulled what he thoughts with a clever stroke. He plugged into the

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empty house next door which had been cut off from power but then

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mysteriously reconnected. Nobody told the meter men. They never

:12:05.:12:10.

called to check. He was caught and fined �300 and ordered to repay the

:12:10.:12:13.

electricity company. We were helping to pay for his electricity.

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He could well afford to pay his own bills as he once had a property

:12:18.:12:24.

portfolio which stretched all the way to Bulgaria. Our meter cheater

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was so confident he wouldn't be caught, he wasn't worried about

:12:28.:12:38.
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We are not aware of any cases where the meter cheat verse been

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convicted. It's the person who pays the bill who usually takes the rap.

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Raymond Magee from Limavady was one of them. To look at it, would you

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know it was tampered with? would know by the security tag

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there. You can see that wee tag there. There's actually a sign

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there warning spwenches with Northern Ireland electricity

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equipment is both dangerous and illegal -- spwefrence. He claims

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visitors to his home bypassed his meter without his knowledge. He

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took full advantage. When it was going free I was thinking, well I

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was burning lights here and electric fires and what not because

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I thought, well, I don't want to get caught. If I saw the

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electricity van out there I Champs Elyseesed the blinds and ignored.

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It the boy came in to read the meter the first time. Then I

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realised then more or less the game was up. He was brought to court and

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fined. Because he couldn't pay, he was disco nexted. He says he lived

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for two years without power. Christmases came and went. I was

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saying to myself, "if my meter wasn't rigged and I didn't have

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this problem I could have the house nicely lit with Christmas lights

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and not sitting here in the dark." What about those who would say it

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was your own fault? I would agree. It was my own fault. Raymond Magee

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wasn't the only one caught in Limavady. 14 others were also found

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with tampered meters. All were convicted and fined. The number of

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prosecutions for electricity theft has been rising dramatically. In

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the past five years, the figures have gone up by a massive 900% from

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19 to just under 200 last year. This woman asked not to be

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identified. Her mother is one of those people who was prosecuted.

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She went to court that day and she thought she was going to just get

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off with a fine or something like that Instead, her 46-year-old

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mother got six months because it was her second offence. Like others,

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she was shocked electricity theft left her with a criminal record.

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The whole family was devastated. Couldn't believe it. She could have

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avoided jail if she'd repaid the �4,000 she owed her electricity

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supplier. Where are you going to get it? Nobody has it like to give

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it to ye. She went to the benefits office. They couldn't help her.

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They couldn't give her that kind of money. Some people out there

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mightn't have a lot of sympathy for your mum because she was caught

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twice? You shouldn't tamper with the electric and whatever. There

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are things that people shouldn't do, but they do it. She didn't it

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deserve to be sent up to jail. everyone who gets caught stealing

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electricity ends up in court. Even though 200 people were prosecuted

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last year, that's only a fraction of the 2,000 people who were caught.

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Most of them got off with warning if they paid for the stolen

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electricity. Among them, people who had paid for more elaborate scams.

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This is where some of the more sophisticated operations were

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carried out, here in South Armagh along the border. We know of one

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case where a developer built a number of new homes. He installed a

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special device which allowed the householder to switch on and off

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their meter. They could get free electricity at the flick of a

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switch. It's known in the business as a switch neutral. It can be very

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hard to detect. In this case, all the devices were found and the

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householders were ordered to pay the money back to the electricity

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company. They too escaped prosecution, elsewhere, elaborate

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bypasses costing up to �3500 have been found by inspectors. We're

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looking at a property with manicured gardens, the electric

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gates, the walls, everything. We did our tests and the tests

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indicated to us that something was amiss. The owner didn't take too

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kindly to NIE's questions about a bypass. He put his hands in the air

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said, "absolutely no way, my meter there. I'm paying my electricity

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bill." I he gave the instruction to start at the back door with a kango

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hammer and follow the cable from the back door to the meter. Once

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the hammer was produced all of a sudden he jumped and said, "no, no

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it's there." He got a child's crayon and he marked the floor.

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After three hours of digging, they found the bypass underneath the

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cement floor. He was caught and he held his hands up to it, which was

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good because, you know we don't want to go into a property and dig

:17:54.:17:59.

from one end to the other. Unusually, this man was taken to

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court, despite paying the money back. Meanwhile, back at our rented

:18:07.:18:17.
:18:17.:18:37.

house, our meter cheater is pleased He tells us how to outsmart the

:18:37.:18:47.
:18:47.:19:02.

meter readers. You don't actually The job of catching the cheats

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falls to the Revenue Protection Officers. They're employed by

:19:06.:19:08.

Northern Ireland Electricity and are called in to investigate cases

:19:08.:19:13.

which have been spotted by meter readers or picked up through tip-

:19:13.:19:16.

offs. You want to make sure you don't fall out with your wife or

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your spouse or have an affair because they tend to take unkindly

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to it and can let us know. The four suppliers have a key role to play

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in detecting fraud. It's part of their licence. Only one of them,

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Budget Energy, was willing to talk about it. If we have a customer who

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we know they have, you know, two children and they have a three

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bedroomed house, that, in general, we know what their spend will be on

:19:43.:19:47.

a weekly, monthly basis. You can watch and see if somebody for

:19:47.:19:51.

instance is putting in �5 for a month, you know there is something

:19:51.:19:55.

wrong. In most instances people own up and that is case closed. Eleanor

:19:55.:19:59.

McEvoy admits they prefer to talk to them and get the money owed

:19:59.:20:02.

rather than prosecute. Nine times out of ten we have come out of it

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where we have come to an agreement with the customer. They have paid

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over their money. Since then they have been operating in the proper

:20:10.:20:14.

legal manner. Electricity theft is also a big problem in the Republic.

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It's doubled in the past three years, costing 10 million euro a

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year. They've invested in a special camera and demonstrated how they

:20:26.:20:29.

search behind meter boxes for suspect wires. It's a quick and

:20:29.:20:34.

easy way to catch those who pay for more elaborate scams. We are

:20:34.:20:38.

sending a camera down to the duct, to the duct coming into the house.

:20:38.:20:43.

We are checking for tampering along the cable itself. We have a good

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picture. We'd look for a sophisticated type of tampering

:20:47.:20:52.

here. They have also come across unsophisticated devices. You can

:20:52.:20:56.

see, at the side of the meter here, there is an object protrudeing from

:20:56.:21:01.

the meter. I think, from this picture, it looks like a biro that

:21:01.:21:06.

was stuck in and, basically, the customer is trying to jam this here

:21:06.:21:11.

from going around and recording the electricity reading. You would find

:21:11.:21:15.

a lot of those in domestic situations. Not always. Sometimes

:21:15.:21:18.

you would find them in businesses as well. These botched efforts were

:21:18.:21:24.

found in homes in the Republic, the same crude methods are beinged here.

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This is a very strong magnet. Basically, it's been put onto the

:21:28.:21:33.

side of the meter. It prevents the disk from going around. As you can

:21:33.:21:37.

see, this magnet is so strong that it has actually moved the face

:21:37.:21:41.

plate on the meter. When businesss in the Republic get caught, they

:21:41.:21:47.

will be prosecuted. We do believe that there are more businesses now

:21:47.:21:53.

getting involved in this. We take a very strong line. When we do, we

:21:53.:21:58.

will prosecute cases and bring people to court. Among them this

:21:58.:22:06.

Donegal hotel. The Holyrood in Bundoran was found have used 30,000

:22:06.:22:09.

euro worth of stolen electricity when it was brought to court.

:22:09.:22:13.

Things aren't so clear here. We have discovered that a hotel in

:22:13.:22:15.

Northern Ireland got caught stealing electricity towards the

:22:15.:22:22.

end of last year. The owner hasn't been prosecuted. The big problem is

:22:22.:22:26.

getting into homes to find the tampered meters in the first place.

:22:26.:22:30.

That's why the majority of electricity thieves are never

:22:30.:22:36.

caught. Some areas are off limits without the police. This was once a

:22:36.:22:41.

no go area for meter readers, the Drumbeg and Meadow Brook estates in

:22:41.:22:45.

Craigavon. In the space of 10 months, eight of them were attacked

:22:45.:22:48.

or threatened and five vehicles were damaged. It has to be said

:22:48.:22:51.

that the vast majority of people living here weren't involved in the

:22:51.:22:57.

trouble, but it did result in meter readers being pulled from the area.

:22:57.:23:01.

When they did finally get access to the homes, they found a small

:23:01.:23:05.

number of tampered meters. It's not just a problem here. Police were

:23:05.:23:10.

also on hand when meter readers earlier this month visited a number

:23:10.:23:16.

of housing estates in Derry. They have to go into areas and, after

:23:16.:23:20.

they go with police warrants, to get into homes to disco next meters.

:23:20.:23:26.

As I say, their primary motivation is to do with safety. It is a real

:23:26.:23:34.

danger. I can't actually reiterate that enough. So why is it that the

:23:34.:23:37.

electricity industry is slow to pursue people who cheat? We

:23:37.:23:41.

couldn't get answers here, so we went to London to ask an

:23:41.:23:49.

independent analyst. David Cox worked in the energy sector for

:23:49.:23:54.

more than 30 years and understands how the companies deal with fraud.

:23:54.:23:57.

They're looking at the cost of their teams to do all that and then

:23:57.:24:01.

do the prosecution and try and get the money back from somebody that's

:24:01.:24:06.

maybe stolen because they're poor, it's often not necessarily very

:24:06.:24:13.

easy either. The temptation, I think, is to be... Is to... Is to

:24:13.:24:16.

not be so rigorous in the investigation in going after every

:24:16.:24:20.

theft. It's not always in their financial interest to chase down

:24:20.:24:24.

these electricity thieves? might spend �10 to recover �1. That

:24:25.:24:32.

is obviously not worth it. Ofgem is planning to set theft targets and

:24:32.:24:35.

offer greater financial incentives to supplyers to tackle electricity

:24:35.:24:41.

fraud. There is no sign of such targets being set here. One of

:24:42.:24:45.

those licence obligations on the supplier is to detect theft and

:24:45.:24:49.

deal with it and recover the money. The regulator has a duty to try and

:24:49.:24:55.

make sure that's done and make sure the supplier does it. The regulator

:24:55.:24:59.

should be monitoring it and making sure the suppliers are doing the

:24:59.:25:02.

best they can. It's one of those problems that isn't very sexy. It

:25:02.:25:06.

tends to go down the priority order in dealing with bigger issues.

:25:06.:25:10.

Northern Ireland, the man who has the final say is the regulator,

:25:10.:25:15.

Shane Lynch. How much of a priority is electricity fraud for him? The

:25:15.:25:20.

answer to that is, we don't know. He has refused to talk to us on the

:25:20.:25:25.

programme. His office did tell us that they offer some incentives to

:25:25.:25:29.

tackle fraud. He decides what is spent on chasing electricity

:25:29.:25:34.

thieves here. As it stands, we spend much less than other parts of

:25:34.:25:38.

the UK. We wanted to talk to him about that and what's he doing

:25:38.:25:42.

about a fraud, which is not only costing �8 million a year, but is

:25:42.:25:47.

also putting lives at risk? We can't. So we are all in the dark.

:25:47.:25:52.

We know one man in the electricity business who was happy to talk. He

:25:52.:26:02.
:26:02.:26:11.

even had advice on how to spend the Tom Doran has seen the damage

:26:11.:26:18.

people rigging meters can do. cables, as you see, have melted

:26:18.:26:22.

totally encrusted. These will catch flame, ignite. The next stage after

:26:22.:26:28.

this here is when you lose the property and possible life. This is

:26:28.:26:33.

the first time the authorities have seen a meter cheater at work. We

:26:33.:26:38.

showed the pictures to Tom Doran. Actually seeing, it it makes me

:26:38.:26:44.

cringe. This guy has absolutely no worry or concern for him, the risk

:26:44.:26:49.

is that he might be seen as opposed to the risk is that you are putting

:26:49.:26:54.

a �3 0prietion tag on the life of your family and your property --

:26:54.:26:59.

�30 price tag on the life of your family and your property for some

:26:59.:27:04.

cheap electric. This man has told us he has done 100s of meters. What

:27:04.:27:08.

would your message be to those people out there who employed him.

:27:08.:27:12.

If you are one of those hundreds you need to come through to

:27:12.:27:16.

ourselves and give us your name and address and we will go out and help

:27:16.:27:20.

you and work with you. My concern, having looked at that there, what

:27:20.:27:24.

he has done, you have a potential time bomb at your meter position

:27:24.:27:30.

because of what this guy has done. It had taken our meter cheater just

:27:30.:27:34.

30 minutes to bypass our fake electricity board. Outside, we had

:27:34.:27:44.
:27:44.:28:05.

We'd wanted to ask him why he was putting lives at risk, but he was

:28:05.:28:15.
:28:15.:28:16.

so quick we didn't get a chance. There you have it. He's gone now

:28:16.:28:20.

with his bag of tricks with him. I'm sure there are a lot of things

:28:21.:28:23.

going through his mind at the minute as he heads up that road.

:28:23.:28:27.

I'm sure one of the thoughts is, whenever you are doing something

:28:28.:28:32.

illegal it doesn't do to advertise online. As for those who have

:28:32.:28:37.

experienced the other side of electricity theft, they've learnt a

:28:37.:28:41.

hard lesson. I wouldn't even dream now of tampering with my

:28:41.:28:44.

electricity. Wouldn't think about it. I would sit here in the dark

:28:44.:28:49.

before I would even do that again. I would say, don't even tamper with.

:28:49.:28:57.

If they are going to send them to jail for, it it's not worth it.

:28:57.:29:00.

Especially losing out on a couple of months of your life, being

:29:00.:29:03.

locked away. That woman is due to get out of prison next week and

:29:03.:29:08.

Enda McClafferty investigates the scale of electricity fraud across Northern Ireland and what it means for customers.


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