More than 1,500 cases of suspected meter tampering are being uncovered each year.
The number of incidents where efforts are made to interfere with gas and electricity meters has more than doubled since 2009, according to ESB Networks.
The company has warned about the danger of tampering with gas and electricity meters as it undertakes a major crackdown on offenders.
It has also expressed concern that a number of individuals are offering a “tampering” service.
An ESB Networks spokesperson said public safety was paramount in the company’s decision to take legal action against people engaged in the illegal practice.
In recent months, the ESB has initiated 26 criminal prosecutions against individuals accused of being involved in meter tampering.
All the cases related to incidents at locations in Dublin and Meath in 2014.
According to the ESB, the number of people prosecuted for interfering with meters has more than doubled in the past five years.
The latest crackdown began after gardaí successfully prosecuted an individual for providing tampering services to gas and electricity customers in the two counties.
In 17 cases, the accused parties have pleaded guilty and were given the Probation Act after fines were imposed and outstanding debts were repaid. The remaining cases were either adjourned or warrants have been issued.
Under the Energy (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2012, a person involved in the theft of electricity or gas is liable on summary conviction to a maximum fine of €5,000 and or a prison term of up to six months. If convicted at Circuit Court level, the maximum fine increases to €150,000 and a jail sentence of up to five years.
The majority of suspect interference cases are reported by ESB staff or contractors following readings and calls to premises. Unusual consumption patterns can also trigger investigations.
There are different methods of tampering with meters and cables, with physical tampering and magnetic interference the most common. Bypassing the meter and fitting direct connections to a mains supply are other methods which have been detected.
Seamus Gray, ESB Networks’ revenue protection manager, said interference posed significant dangers to such individuals as well as ESB staff, the public and the emergency services.
“Meter interference is easily detected and we have a team dedicated to identifying those involved. It is our policy to take criminal proceedings against such people,” said Mr Gray.
The ESB believes such a policy serves a dual purpose of managing the risk to public safety while also acting as a deterrent to other potential offenders.
ESB charges customers up to €197 to replace a tampered meter, or up to €408 to repair one.
The company has advised customers who face difficulties in paying their bills to contact their suppliers who can provide a range of payment options, including pay-as-you-go meters.
More than 8,700 electricity customers and almost 4,000 gas customers were disconnected for non-payment of bills last year — the lowest level since the start of the economic downturn.
In many cases, the premises are vacant. Residential customers account for around 85% of all disconnections of electricity and 95% of gas supplies.
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