26/02/2013 Spotlight


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

Similar Content

Browse content similar to 26/02/2013. Check below for episodes and series from the same categories and more!



Electricity theft is on the increase. The meter was tampered


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


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


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


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


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


Apology for the loss of subtitles for 49 seconds


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


offering to help to reduce electricity bills. There is a


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Electricity transformed life when it first arrived in Northern


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


believe that people go to the extent of stealing their


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


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


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


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


it. I set out to discover what sort of people are using the meter


cheaters. This house near Enniskillen was rented out and


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


massive network of overheadlines run by Northern Ireland Electricity.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


indeed other electricity risk issues because they are always


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


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


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


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


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


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


McEvoy moved into the electricity market after selling her mobile


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


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


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


sure there are people who are experiencing a loft bad debt


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


tampering. There are various methods from the down right stupid


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


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


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


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


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


Retired meter reader, George McFarland, has come across many


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


what the owner of this takaway Gavin Vallely enjoyed after he


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


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


mysteriously reconnected. Nobody told the meter men. They never


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


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


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


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


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


We are not aware of any cases where the meter cheat verse been


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


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


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


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


there warning spwenches with Northern Ireland electricity


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


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


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


was burning lights here and electric fires and what not because


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


prosecutions for electricity theft has been rising dramatically. In


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


This is where some of the more sophisticated operations were


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


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


special device which allowed the householder to switch on and off


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


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


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


householders were ordered to pay the money back to the electricity


company. They too escaped prosecution, elsewhere, elaborate


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


looking at a property with manicured gardens, the electric


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Northern Ireland Electricity and are called in to investigate cases


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Northern Ireland got caught stealing electricity towards the


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


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


That's why the majority of electricity thieves are never


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


electricity industry is slow to pursue people who cheat? We


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


independent analyst. David Cox worked in the energy sector for


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


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


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


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


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


not be so rigorous in the investigation in going after every


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


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


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


offer greater financial incentives to supplyers to tackle electricity


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


those licence obligations on the supplier is to detect theft and


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


tackle fraud. He decides what is spent on chasing electricity


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Download Subtitles