Energy theft (also referred to as meter cheating), is a serious issue. Over £400 million worth of electricity and gas is estimated to be stolen annually through meter tampering. And, this doesn’t just affect energy companies, it’s also having a detrimental effect on cash-strapped consumers; with offences adding £20 to each household bill.
What’s more, meter tampering poses a dangerous threat to public safety, leaving unsafe equipment which can cause electric shocks, fires, and even explosions.
Energy companies have a commitment to Ofgem to do what they can to alleviate the issue, careful and proactive investigation and detection are crucial. To ensure success, the right levels of focus, resources and expertise must be devoted to the problem. That’s where highly trained field teams come in.
The importance of highly trained field teams
Whilst some types of energy theft are obvious (damage to the meter or missing dials), other examples can be incredibly clandestine and likely to go unnoticed without a well-trained eye. For field teams, an understanding of meters, although essential, is simply not enough on its own. Specialist investigation personnel must be trained to spot every occurrence of energy theft, no matter how subtle.
“A strong awareness of surroundings and an inquisitive nature are essential skills to spot clues and helpful indicators.”
Many energy suppliers have in-house field teams, however, sector pressures such as the smart meter rollout are taking up this field resource, inhibiting the ability to deal effectively with energy theft.
Field teams need to act quickly and decisively to a suspected case – and where there is a suspected serious safety concern, a same day visit is essential. Field teams must therefore cover the entirety of the UK, rather than simply the “hotspots” where theft is prevalent.
Energy providers experiencing time and resource constraints that hinder theft detection should consider outsourcing the task to a specialist team, who can manage the whole process from end to end.
Customer-centricity is still essential
Strong customer service skills are as important as effective investigation skills. Field teams must be able to deal with challenging and difficult circumstances effectively, while remaining sensitive to individual customer needs.
“It’s important that guilt is not assumed from the outset, and that a sensitive approach is taken at all times.”
Where theft has been positively identified and the site made safe, outstanding arrears must be discussed with the customer, necessitating additional expertise in effective debt collection. And, where the property in question can’t be accessed, obtaining and executing a warrant could be required. The benefits of a multi-skilled field team can therefore not be underestimated.
Of course, not every investigation will confirm illegal activity; these situations are incredibly delicate and have the potential to quickly escalate, possibly creating irreparable damage to customer relationships and brand reputation. Visits must therefore be handled with great care and empathy.
There’s also the opportunity to connect with vulnerable customers who, while not having done anything illegal, may be living with difficult circumstances, which may otherwise have gone unnoticed by their energy providers. Just another reason why proactive customer engagement is so important.
The time to act is now
Proactively preventing energy theft must be treated as a priority as we move forwards. Initiatives such as the Theft Risk Assessment Service and the Energy Theft & Tip Off Service are a great start. However, we all need to be doing more at a local level if we are to better combat this dangerous issue.
Field investigation teams need to forge strong relationships with key groups such as local authorities, relevant charities, meter reading providers and debt collection agencies. This can both raise the awareness of energy theft and enable wider detection of offences.
“Greater energy theft investigation and detection is not just a financial obligation – it’s a serious moral issue too. While financial implications should not be ignored, safeguarding the health and well-being of customers and the wider community is a fundamental responsibility that can’t be disregarded.”
As a sector, I believe it’s high time that we placed tackling energy theft higher in our priority list, and that really needs to start now.
Lloyd Birkhead, Managing Director