Evidence of tampering
As a supply of gas or electricity is charged for on the basis of metered consumption, the most obvious unlawful method of reducing a potential fuel bill is to interfere with a meter to prevent it registering or to reduce the amount it has registered.
It is a criminal offence to interfere with an electricity meter, punishable with a fine of up to £1,000.1Sch 4 para 11 EA 1989 An offence is committed where you alter the register of a meter or prevent the meter from duly registering the quantity of electricity supplied. It is a criminal offence to damage any electricity line, plant or meter, punishable with a fine of up to £1,000.2Ch 27 Sch 7 para 6(1) UA 2000 It is a criminal offence to interfere with gas fittings, service pipe and meter equipment, punishable with a fine of up to £1,000.3Sch 2B para 10(1) GA 1986 An offence is committed where you alter the index of a meter or prevent the meter from duly registering the quantity of gas supplied. The offence of abstracting electricity is committed where you dishonestly use electricity without due authority or dishonestly cause electricity to be wasted or diverted.4s13 TA 1968 The offence may be tried in the magistrates’ court or the Crown Court. On conviction in the magistrates’ court, you can be fined or imprisoned for up six months;5s32 Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 while on conviction in the Crown Court, the maximum penalty is five years’ imprisonment. This penalty would be reserved for the most serious of cases.6Sentencing Council Guidelines, 1 February 2016, available at
There are sometimes tell-tale signs on a meter that has been tampered with – eg, the seals are cut or missing, meter dials are not moving, the meter dial is not visible, the meter casing is damaged, cracked or badly scratched or a small hole has been drilled in the side, odd wires or pipes out of place by meters or a prepayment meter is still working without credit. These descriptions are included not as a guide to people who might want to attempt tampering, but for advisers who may have no knowledge of what tampering involves and may need to identify and establish if meter interference has taken place commensurate with theft.
Never assume that an allegation of tampering is correct, whatever technical evidence is quoted by the supplier. The evidence is not always clear-cut and the supplier’s experts do not always get it right. You can get your own expert (look for an ‘electrical engineer’, ‘gas engineer’ or ‘gas installer’) to examine the meter for an objective assessment.
Meter tampering is not always seen when the meter is read in the normal way. All meter technicians or readers should be trained in detection; but they are only there for a short time. Holes or cracks may be on the far side of the meter in a dark cupboard and therefore difficult to spot. In some cases, the dividing up of properties into separate self-contained dwellings and the resultant variations as to the addresses of occupiers can give rise to problems.
Theft due to tampering can be detected by unusual patterns of consumption – eg, if the bills suddenly decrease or show a reduced consumption or if they increase or show heightened consumption after the installation of a new meter. A meter examiner will then come to look at the meter, normally accompanied by a colleague (see Chapter 10) and sometimes by the police. If signs of tampering are detected consistent with theft, the meter will be removed and the supply disconnected. If no evidence is detected there and then showing illegal abstraction, the meter may be taken away for further examination, but a replacement should be left so that the supply is not disconnected straight away. Some electricity suppliers are prepared to install another meter immediately, usually a prepayment meter. However, when a gas supply is disconnected, the system must be purged and re-lit before the supply of gas can be re-started. The technicians who carry out the disconnection are unlikely to have both the expertise and the authority to do this.
With smart meters, the scope for unlawful tampering is reduced as the meter can be controlled remotely and the level of fuel consumption can be regulated without the supplier having to physically remove the meter. If a smart meter is hacked to under-report energy usage, the offences described in this chapter apply.