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10 April 2012, 15:59

Smart electricity meters in Puerto Rico made to look foolish

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Smart Meter
Smart meters like this can be fooled
According to a report by US journalist Brian Krebs, the near ubiquity of smart meters in Puerto Rico is matched only by the frequency with which they are hacked. Krebs cites a 2010 FBI report, according to which spot checks by an unnamed electricity supplier found that around one in ten smart meters had been modified. The company estimates the resulting losses at up to $400 million (around €300 million) per year.

According to the FBI, power thieves on the Caribbean island nation, an unincorporated territory of the USA, used optical probes to hack the meters via the infrared maintenance port. Suitable probes are available online for around $400 and are connected to a laptop which runs software to modify the meter's settings. The software needed to carry out the hack is freely available online. The hack does not damage the smart meter hardware or require its removal.

It is also possible to get free electricity from the meters by placing a powerful magnet on the devices, the FBI says. Some customers use this method to disable the meters at night when running power-hungry air-conditioning units, ensuring a cool night-time environment. The magnets are then removed during the day when the customer is out at work. This can reduce the electricity metered by up to 75 per cent. Because the meters continue to send readings to the supplier at regular intervals, the fraud is not easily detected.

According to the FBI report, criminals are charging domestic users $300 to $1000 to have their meters hacked, rising to around $3000 for commercial customers. The FBI believes that former employees of the smart meter supplier and of the electricity company are cashing in by hacking the meters and by selling their knowledge to others.

The FBI report does not give the name of the electricity supplier involved, but according to Krebs it can only be Puerto Rico's largest power company, the state-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA). The company reports that it has been installing remotely readable smart meters since 1992.


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