Clauses in rental agreements prohibiting occupants from allowing access to officers of the local authority have been commonplace for some time. The reasons are obvious as these types of contracts are used in overcrowded, unlicensed HMOs and discovery by licensing and enforcement teams gets expensive.
The casual reader of such a contract might be mystified about the similarly commonplace inclusion of a prohibition on access to people from utility companies.
Well, to cut straight to the chase, there has been, for some time now, an epidemic among the rogue landlord community for using unregistered and tampered utility meters.
When I worked for the London Borough of Lewisham multi agency rogue landlord taskforce, most of our best intel came from revenue protection officers of EDF and British Gas. We taught them how to spot potentially unlicensed HMOs and call them in and in return, they taught us how to spot the signs of dodgy supplies and return the favour.
Many joint raids were carried out, which were always very productive for all concerned.
Of course when approached the landlords and agents always blamed the tenants, which is a possibility of course, except, when you interview the tenants, it transpires that the rent is either inclusive of bills or they pay the landlord a fixed fee separately for the utility supplies, so why would you fiddle your meter in such circumstances?
You can buy electricity and gas meters on eBay. Its not illegal to buy or to fit them, its just illegal not to hook them up to utility companies.
You can also buy the meter seals on eBay. Of course they wont necessarily match the meter but the people who read the meters don’t check that the seals are the right ones, so anyone can take a meter apart, do any amount of tinkering and then seal them up again, with nobody any the wiser.
I once went into the basement of a property where there was the unavoidable sound of metal grinding. Close examination revealed a gas meter that had been opened and the cogs of the wheel filed off, so that only random gears drove the metering, thus reducing the bills considerably for the landlord, whose tenants were paying him a set amount for utilities.
Meter tampering doesn’t even have to be clumsy or dangerous and there are many electricians out there more than happy for a cash sum, to do the job for the landlord in a professional way.
One property I was called to had 6 meters in what was a house converted into micro-flats without planning permission. All meters had been highly competently fitted and sealed, a real pro job but the attending revenue officer made a call and found out that all 6 meters were illegal and unregistered.
A few years back I appeared in a BBC1 documentary on the subject trying to make the problem more widely known. The same programme featured an anonymous electrician talking about how much money he had made doing it. He had even bought a house in the Caribbean off the proceeds.
Charging tenants for utility bills that aren’t actually being paid is just another form of revenue stream for the rogue landlord and agent market.
British Gas has the revenue protection contracts for a number of both gas and electricity companies and have hooked up with Crimestoppers to promote awareness of the problem.
If you are suspicious you can report your concerns here and someone will get around to check.
Having meters that are “Off the grid” so to speak can be great indicators of criminal activity in rented properties, such as cannabis farms and properties housing trafficked people.
I received training in the various methods of meter tampering and no, I’m not going to tell you here but what is really surprising is how easy a lot of the methods are and as soon as a new meter is invented to disarm a certain type of tampering, people find new ways to fiddle them.
Many revenue protection officers have been retired due to a blind faith in the new Smart Meter models but talk to any electrician and they laugh at the prospect that they cant be interfered with if you know what you are doing.
Being a rogue landlord or agent is about looking at every single revenue stream that can be eked out of renting a property and milking it to the max.
This includes overcrowding, lack of licensing, HB fraud and energy theft.
A couple of years back I was called to a property where the tenant, a hard working fella with a young baby, complained he was putting £70 a week on his electricity key meter and couldn’t understand why.
I took him outside and found the meter cupboard, which revealed a grey mains cable running from his meter to the mechanic’s business owned by the landlord at the back of the property.
The tenant was paying his landlord’s bills and this is not unusual, several times I’ve dealt with complaints from tenants living above letting agents, only to find that their supply was feeding both their flat and the office below.
One rogue agent I dealt with running numerous properties, would pay one of his tenants to hot wire the meter, paying him in Whisky. Not a great combination.
Also, In the early days of the Lewisham council multi agency rogue landlord taskforce, we took on a solicitor to bump up the team’s skills.
A recent divorcee, she was renting a property in Blackheath, a very salubrious area of south London, waiting for the property adjustment order to send her on the next path of her life.
She had never heard of such practices and ran her property past EDF Revenue officers, who gave her the bad news, that even she was being scammed by a stolen meter in her rent inclusive of bills contract. A lawyer working in a local authority rogue landlord team.
There are no depths that a rogue landlord or agent will not stoop to, in order to increase their income at the expense of safety or tenant’s rights.
If you work with tenants, always ask them if their rent includes money for bills. If it does, check the meters and call it in.
If you live in self contained accommodation, why would your rent include bills if the landlord is not up to skullduggery?
By Ben Reeve-Lewis