Electricity theft at record levels in England and Wales – BBC analysis

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Cannabis farms, cryptocurrency mines and the cost-of-living crisis are being blamed for record levels of electricity thefts in England and Wales. BBC analysis found rates of such thefts had risen by 75% since 2012, passing 3,500 offences for the first time in 2021-22. At least 10 police force areas saw a doubling in the crime, which can be deadly, over the past decade. The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) said it was “a growing problem”. Electricity thefts are where meters are tampered with or bypassed to avoid paying for energy. It can leave live wires exposed and will often involve bypassing fuse boxes, increasing the risk of appliances overheating or catching fire and death. In September 2018, seven-year-old Harvey Tyrrell died after climbing a fence in a pub garden where the electrical meter had been bypassed. He had come into contact with a lightbulb served by an unearthed fuse box. The pub owner, David Bearman, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and stealing electricity from an unmetered supply. He was sentenced to nine years in prison. The BBC’s Shared Data Unit looked at rates of the offence between 2012-13 and 2022-23, using figures from 42 police forces across England and Wales. The investigation found the past three years had seen the highest levels on record, peaking at 3,599 thefts in 2021-22. However, the figures paint a mixed picture. West Midlands Police saw a six-fold rise, while Hertfordshire Constabulary witnessed a decrease of 69%. Assistant commissioner at London Fire Brigade, Charlie Pugsley, said criminal activity including “anything from cannabis cultivation to Bitcoin mining” was behind a rise in the capital. “Electricity theft is a concern for fire and rescue services across the country, because it does increase the risk of a fire starting,” he said. “People living, working or playing in properties where there might be a theft of electricity are at a much higher risk.” He added that electrical fires were also more likely to put firefighters in danger. Cryptocurrency laundering – which involves using powerful computers to ‘mine’ digital currencies such as Bitcoin – also increased among criminal groups during the pandemic, according to the data firm Chainalysis. In May 2021, West Midlands Police discovered a Bitcoin mining operation at a Sandwell industrial estate where about 100 computers were hooked up to a bypassed electricity supply. The force saw the biggest proportional rise in electrical thefts, according to analysis. Last year it reported a surge in cannabis farms across the region. West Midlands Police declined to comment on the BBC’s findings. However, Mr Pugsley claimed the cost-of-living crisis could also be a factor in the rise and some people might have turned to meter tampering in an attempt to save money. “People have seen huge price rises, so while we clearly can’t condone theft of electricity, it is not unexpected.” A survey of 150 electricians by insurance company Direct Line found more than a third had been approached to interfere with meters during the past year. Meanwhile, the real-term cost of electricity has more than doubled since 2010. Citizen’s Advice predicts that by the end of 2023 it will have seen 26% more people in need of help with energy debt compared to last year. Offences peaked in the first quarter of 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine and energy prices started to rise significantly. As part of the investigation, the BBC interviewed a man who was part of a criminal gang that ran cannabis farms in the early 2000s. When he was a boy, he was made to set up and dismantle cannabis farms, including bypassing electricity meters. He said the gang could be working on 15 to 20 locations at once, evading electricity companies and the police. But pressure from the gang’s leaders, and the risks involved in bypassing meters, meant it was dangerous work. “During the set up, you could be dead in an instant,” he said. “While you’re connecting it to the wires, if you make one error of judgement, lose concentration for a second, that could be it. You’d be dead.” He has since left the gang and started a new life. The punishment for dishonest use of electricity is an unlimited fine and sentencing of up to five years, depending on the severity of the crime. Suspected electricity theft can be reported anonymously to Stay Energy Safe, managed by the charity Crimestoppers. A spokesperson for the charity said it had seen a year-on-year increase in people making contact since 2016. However, they said it was “impossible” to determine if the increase was “fully or partly due to the current economic climate”. “This is because it’s those with suspicions and not the perpetrators who contact us – so we are unaware of the real motivations behind the rise in this type of crime.” A spokesperson for the NPCC said: “The theft of electricity is a growing problem. It is a concerning crime as it can put people’s safety at risk and support the activities of serious organised crime. “We know that energy theft holds a significant connection with illegal drugs, and in particular cannabis cultivation. “It is important for businesses and commercial enterprises, particularly those who operate out of large or isolated premises, to remain vigilant around energy theft.”

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