Catching electricity thieves via the internet

A sting operation is helping British power companies to catch electricity thieves who use the Internet to boast of their exploits. The power thieves, who according to estimates steal more than £350 million worth of electricity every year, may soon find an inspector calling, armed with a meter reader and print-outs from Internet discussion groups.

Scottish Hydro-Electric, based in Perth, is the first British power company to sign on to an anti-theft initiative launched by the International Utilities Revenue Protection Association (IURPA) in the USA. IURPA agents send queries to Usenet discussion groups asking for advice on stealing power and tampering with line meters. They then forward the names of respondents to their local power companies.

Dozens of power thieves who sent replies have already been prosecuted in America by power companies, which discovered magnets attached to meters, underground cables connected to local mains and – of particular interest to the Drug Enforcement Agency – a number of professional herbalists using bootleg power to light their crops.

Scottish Hydro-Electric received its first tip-off from the scheme in 1999, after attending an IURPA conference. A spokesman for the utility said: “We had heard what they were up to, and it all sounded very American to us. Then one of their delegates said: ‘We just found a guy in your area. He even gave us his phone number’.

“We don’t know how many people we might catch this way, but power theft is a serious problem and we’re going to take any advantage offered to us.” Scottish Hydro-Electric traced more than 1 600 cases of power theft last year, reporting 395 customers to the Procurator Fiscal.

Two English regional suppliers have expressed interest in joining the scheme, which serves power companies around the world. IURPA has received tips from power thieves in Asia, Scandinavia and Africa – wherever the Internet has gained a foothold.

Recent cases of power theft discovered by British inspectors included customers tunneling out to roadside mains cables and splicing into the supply, a garage taking its night-time power supply from the nearest lamp post, and domestic customers drilling holes into meter boxes and attempting to stop the counter wheels from turning.

But the prize for most innovative power theft scheme must go to an American with a high-voltage line close to his house. He wound half a mile of copper cable around his garage, creating a giant induction coil capable of powering most of his home appliances.