Educating a new generation of bill payers on the signs and dangers of energy theft

An estimated £440 million worth of gas and electricity is stolen every year as a result of meter tampering, with the illegal practice adding as much as £20 onto each household bill. Though a serious crime that poses financial and physical threats to energy consumers and customers, energy theft continues to be prevalent in the UK.


However, awareness of meter tampering among the general public is low and more needs to be done to remedy this as a new generation leave their family homes and take control of their own utilities. Generation Z – those born between 1997 and 2012 – are becoming energy bill payers for the first time and utility companies have a duty to educate this new cohort of customers about the signs and safety measures they should be alert to.


As they take their first steps towards independent living, now is a pertinent time to discuss how new generations of bill payers can be reached, the best methods for educating them on the implications of energy theft, and the benefits of spotting evidence of tampering.


Improving the awareness of tampering brings with it an obvious benefit of reducing monthly outgoings in a new living situation, and tackles the naivety around the implications for personal safety.


Grosvenor Services Group conducted a study of 2,000 households across the UK which found that over half (53%) of Gen Z were unaware of the risks energy theft poses to public safety. Moreover, 75% of respondents – across all age groups – said they would not feel confident in knowing how to spot the signs of an energy meter tamper.


Bridging the Generation Z knowledge gap


Therefore, with Gen Z displaying less understanding of the impact of energy theft, it is necessary that they be reached and educated using the language and channels with which they are most familiar.


In findings from a study conducted by Echo Managed Services that focused on how Gen Z engaged with water companies, it was found that the cohort shows a significantly higher preference for social media and text than other generations. Furthermore, and perhaps to be expected from a generation of digital natives, they are also less likely to engage with traditional direct mail correspondence.


The research into Gen Z bill payers revealed that they are almost twice as likely as their counterparts aged 25+ (31% vs 17%) to want to be engaged and informed by utility companies via social media channels. A trend that is also true for other digital forms of communication such as instant messaging.


Though the study found that water companies struggle to engage customers generally via social media, there is evidence to suggest that opportunities to connect with Gen Z across certain platforms may be more plentiful. Indeed, less than a third (31%) of the bill-paying cohort claimed they wouldn’t follow their water company on social media. The likelihood is that this will not be materially different for energy providers.


Using social media intelligently


Social media remains a powerful tool for engaging with and educating Gen Z but care needs to be taken with choosing the right platforms and the type of content to produce. Recent research has found that Gen Z prefer video-centred platforms, such as Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat and Tik Tok. Short-form videos – those lasting no more than 60 seconds – are among the category of content particularly popular with Gen Z. Utility companies must therefore leverage the content formats Gen Z prefer, focusing on the main platforms the cohort uses, to have the best chance of delivering impactful education.


A shift towards social media as a means of educating Gen Z is also relatively safe to come at the expense of investment in human interaction, as the study into Gen Z’s engagement with water companies found that only 8% said their preference was to talk directly with another human.


To satisfy this preference, utility companies should ensure that digital channels continue to deliver what Gen Z need to learn about the risks associated with energy theft. Using digital channels to educate in this way also has another advantage. Gen Z demonstrates a more relaxed attitude towards digitally stored data with the study finding that twice as many among the cohort (compared with respondents aged 25+) trust digitally held information, providing an opportunity for utility companies to personalise outreach in ways that will deliver a greater impact.


Regulation of social media content


However, in the same way that energy companies have the ability to post online so do those offering potentially dangerous information. Simple internet searches reveal a number of written, illustrative and video tutorials explaining how to tamper with meters and supplies. This potentially life-endangering information can be accessed by anyone who has access to the internet. Therefore, more must also be done to combat the hosting and spread of this dangerous information by better policing of their platforms, and the immediate investigation and taking down of these materials. Grosvenor has previously campaigned about this topic, however more still needs to be done to prompt social media platforms to deal with this problem.


Final thought  


With this in mind, those including utility companies, landlords and housing associations, wanting to improve education in younger age groups of the dangers of energy theft should look to split their outreach efforts based on the research present. The crime of energy theft has been a persistent challenge for decades. However, we can now see that a lack of public awareness as to the signs, risks, and consequences of the practice has facilitated this persistence.


Though full eradication of energy theft may never be possible, by approaching new generations differently and taking measures to engage them in the ways they prefer to be engaged, it is a phenomenon that we as an industry, can finally begin preventing and tackling more effectively.

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