People stole electricity on a record number of occasions across England and Wales last year, figures show.
Electricity theft – which can be carried out by tampering with a line or bypassing a meter – has the potential to cause serious injury and is punishable by up to five years in prison.
Though already an increasing problem, the National Energy Action (NEA) campaign group said it is “horrifying” that more people could be turning to the illegal practice to keep their lights on amid a growing energy crisis.
Home Office figures show police forces across England and Wales received 3,600 reports of “dishonest use of electricity” in the year to March – up 13% on 2020-21, and the most since comparable records began in 2012-13.
Around 1,100 of these occurred between January and March – almost double the number recorded over the same period in 2018-19 and 2019-20.
Stay Energy Safe, operated by Crimestoppers, warned that tampering with a meter can lead to wires overheating, damage to property and potentially loss of life.
It said the crime costs energy companies a minimum of £440 million each year – with these costs then passed on to customers.
An Ofgem spokesperson said “under no circumstances should consumers attempt to connect electricity meters themselves”.
But the NEA said the cost-of-living crisis is forcing people into “increasingly desperate situations” where they are looking to avoid energy use – including using candles instead of lights – or possibly resorting to electricity theft.
Peter Smith, NEA director of policy and advocacy, said: “This is not only illegal but dangerous too, and it’s horrifying if the crisis is forcing households to try this to keep the lights on.
“And this is happening now, before winter and the cold weather hits.”
When former chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a cost-of-living support package in May, the NEA said the predicted average annual energy bill from October could hit £2,800 – but this figure is now expected to reach £3,358.
Mr Smith added: “More support is desperately needed to close this gap and help the most vulnerable keep themselves warm and safe this winter.”
Across the two nations, 57% of electricity theft cases closed last year had no suspect identified, while 30% were abandoned due to evidential difficulties and 7% resulted in a charge or summons.
The Government said it is providing £37 billion to help households with the cost of living.
A spokesman said: “We are committed to cracking down on crime, including the criminal theft of electricity, which causes serious injury to people and damage to property.”