THE number of homes where electricity meters have been tampered with to cut soaring bills has increased 180 per cent in a decade.

Since 2012, incidents where meters are tampered with or bypassed have risen by 75 per cent nationally – but local rates are much higher.

Electricity theft had been decreasing before the pandemic struck in 2020 and last year’s figure was at an all-time high.

The real-term cost of electricity has more than doubled since 2010 and in light of this, and the broader cost-of-living crisis, the BBC-run study looked at the rate of electricity theft.

The National Energy Action (NEA) campaign group said it was ‘horrifying’ that others could be turning to the illegal practice to keep their lights on due to rocketing household bills.

Peter Smith, NEA director of policy and advocacy, said: “This is not only illegal but dangerous too – it’s horrifying that 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.”

Stay Energy Safe, operated by Crimestoppers, says tampering with a meter can lead to wires overheating, the damage of property and potentially loss of life – as well as a punishment of up to five years’ imprisonment if caught.

It also warns that the crime costs energy companies a minimum of £440m each year – with these costs then passed on to customers.

An Ofgem spokesperson added that ‘under no circumstances should consumers attempt to connect electricity meters themselves’.

A Crimestoppers spokesperson said: “Stay Energy Safe is a way for people to report their suspicions of meter tampering and energy theft completely anonymously.

“We have seen an increase in the number of people contacting us about energy theft year-on-year since 2016.

“It is impossible for us to prove that this year’s increase is 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.”

As well as fuel bills, the study also found police in Barnsley have dismantled dozens of cannabis farms in the last 12 months, which would have had a street value of more than £1m.