"Electricity theft is a concern for fire and rescue services"
Electricity thefts are at a record high in England and Wales, rising by 75% since 2012 and passing 3,500 offences for the first time in 2021-22.
At least 10 police force areas saw a doubling in the crime over the past decade.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) said it was “a growing problem”.
Electricity thefts are where meters are tampered with or bypassed to avoid paying for energy.
It can leave live wires exposed and will often involve bypassing fuse boxes, increasing the risk of appliances overheating or catching fire and death.
Using the rates of the offence between 2012-13 and 2022-23 from 42 police forces across England and Wales, a BBC investigation found the past three years had seen the highest levels on record, peaking at 3,599 in 2021-22.
But the figures do not tell the whole story.
While West Midlands Police saw a six-fold rise, while Hertfordshire Constabulary witnessed a decrease of 69%.
Cannabis farms, cryptocurrency mines and the cost-of-living crisis are being blamed.
Assistant commissioner at London Fire Brigade, Charlie Pugsley, said:
“Electricity theft is a concern for fire and rescue services across the country because it does increase the risk of a fire starting.
“People living, working or playing in properties where there might be a theft of electricity are at a much higher risk.”
He added that electrical fires were also more likely to put firefighters in danger.
In May 2021, West Midlands Police discovered a Bitcoin mining operation at a Sandwell industrial estate, where approximately 100 computers were hooked up to a bypassed electricity supply.
The force witnessed the biggest proportional rise in electrical thefts.
In 2022, there was a surge in cannabis farms across the region.
Mr Pugsley also said the cost-of-living crisis could also be a factor and some people might have turned to electricity theft in an attempt to save money.
He added: “People have seen huge price rises, so while we clearly can’t condone theft of electricity, it is not unexpected.”
Meanwhile, the real-term cost of electricity has more than doubled since 2010.
Citizen’s Advice predicts that by the end of 2023, it will have seen 26% more people in need of help with energy debt compared to the previous year.
Electricity thefts peaked in the first quarter of 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine and energy prices started to rise significantly.
One man who was part of a criminal gang in the early 2000s was made to set up and dismantle cannabis farms when he was a boy.
This included bypassing electricity meters.
He said the gang could be working on 15 to 20 locations at once, evading electricity companies and the police.
However, pressure from the gang’s leaders and the risks involved in bypassing meters meant it was dangerous work.
He said: “During the set-up, you could be dead in an instant.
“While you’re connecting it to the wires, if you make one error of judgement, lose concentration for a second, that could be it. You’d be dead.”
The man has since left the gang and started a new life.
The punishment for dishonest use of electricity is an unlimited fine and sentencing of up to five years, depending on the severity of the crime.
Suspected electricity theft can be reported anonymously to Stay Energy Safe, managed by the charity Crimestoppers.
A spokesperson for the charity said it had seen a year-on-year increase in people making contact since 2016.
But they said it was “impossible” to determine if the increase was “fully or partly due to the current economic climate”.
“This is because it’s those with suspicions and not the perpetrators who contact us – so we are unaware of the real motivations behind the rise in this type of crime.”
A spokesperson for the NPCC said: “The theft of electricity is a growing problem.
“It is a concerning crime as it can put people’s safety at risk and support the activities of serious organised crime.
“We know that energy theft holds a significant connection with illegal drugs, and in particular cannabis cultivation.
“It is important for businesses and commercial enterprises, particularly those who operate out of large or isolated premises, to remain vigilant around energy theft.”