One thing that I am coming across increasingly over the last 5 or 6 years working in Rogue-Land, is landlords renting out properties where the rent is inclusive of bills.
A curious arrangement for anything other than an HMO and in the past, completely unheard of in self-contained accommodation – but in rogue land it is accounting for an increasingly higher percentage of lettings, enabling the rogue landlord to garner extra money for utility bills that aren’t actually being paid.
Buying meters online
For a start, electricity and gas meters are freely available online. They aren’t illegal to buy and they aren’t illegal to fit, its only illegal to not tell the energy company that you have done so.
One West London property I went into last year had an electricity meter with the name of an electricity supplier in Yorkshire boldly emblazoned on the front.
There is a whole industry of qualified and unqualified, off the cards gas and electricity fitters willing to do cash in hand jobs and set up a supply without it being picked up by any energy companies.
Sometimes its very professionally done by qualified electricians who fit them legitimately for a living and so are at least not actually a danger to the occupants, resulting only in a loss of revenue to an energy supplier.
But other times the connections are so ham-fisted that they present a real fire risk.
One fitter I spoke to had a rudimentary knowledge of electrics and was paid in whisky by the landlord to hotwire meters. The house in question hosting 47 occupants at one time, some of whom were running 2 ring Belling cookers by hooking the supply cable up to the ceiling light.
The property was repeatedly disconnected but back online by the afternoon.
Also, meters can be tampered with in a wide variety of ways. Opening up the meters and tinkering with the insides can come through a variety of methods. In order to do so, you need to remove the seals that hold the body of the meter together but you can buy seals online and re-fit after the fact.
Of course, the seal numbers won’t match the meter, which is how it should work but the people who read the meters don’t check the validity of the seals, so they still go undetected.
Shocking underground statistics
A couple of years back I appeared in a BBC programme about this, invited on because of the growing amount of these set-ups being reported.
Another interviewee, understandably blacked out on camera, confessed that as a qualified electrician he had fitted something like 1,500 of them for people who paid him cash in hand – and that’s just one guy.
It’s not hard to identify
I have a set of stock questions when I go to a property.
I ask who the landlord is, how much they pay, that kind of thing and in the past few years I also now ask if their rent includes gas and electricity. When they reply that it does I know that something is rotten in the state of the ‘cupboard under the stairs’.
And it’s not just tampered or stolen meters that are the problem. Hotwiring supplies off of one meter onto another is also a regular occurrence.
Problems for innocent tenants
One poor fella in East London recently told me that he was putting £70 a week on his electricity key meter and couldn’t understand why.
I knew straight away what was happening and took him outside of his flat to the meter cupboards on the back of the building, where a grey cable was running from his meter to the garage business behind that was owned by his landlord.
Also recently I received a complaint among other things of hefty bills from a single mum living in a flat above letting agents in south London. When I went to view, it was evident that her domestic supply was also running the shop.
Spotting the problem
How come the energy companies don’t pick these up I hear you ask?
Well if Scottish Power doesn’t have a record of a supply at a particular address they reasonably presume that another company is signed up. People change suppliers all the time and many properties are simply unoccupied for periods of time.
If a bill fluctuates there could be any number of reasons why. It doesn’t always mean skulduggery and the suppliers aren’t about to send out a revenue protection officer every time – and certainly not where the utility supplier isn’t them.
The hidden switch
Then there is the method known as “Switch Neutral” that can effectively hide the problem, by installing a simple switch in an out of the way place, allowing the person to turn the meter on and off when the meter men arrive.
The wiring for this is all hidden and again, not something meter readers will look for or pick up.
Some hotwiring entails putting meters on and off supply every couple of weeks simply to reduce bills and yes, tenants can be guilty of this as well.
Bridging being the most common method for simple tampering, which entails attached a thick piece of copper wire between the terminals that go into the meter itself, thus ‘Bridging’ the wires and bypassing the information going to the meter.
Staggeringly dangerous but also very common. I’ve never seen a bridging set-up where the wood behind the copper wire wasn’t badly scorched from the heat generated.
Tampering is shockingly easy to do.
As an enforcement officer I have attended training courses from both gas and electricity companies on methods for meter tampering and was amazed at how simple some of them are and no…..I’m not going to share that information with you.
Persistent offenders can have their supply cut off in the street by UK Power Networks, who also weld over the cables to stop people reattaching the line. It costs several thousand pounds to get the supply reconnected in such circumstances but I have only seen them do it once in many, many years.
Of course, when caught out the landlord blames the tenant but if the rent is inclusive of bills what possible incentive would the tenant have for doing it?
Follow the money, as they say in The Wire and these conditions crop up in more properties than not that I visit each week.