Callous crooks profiting on rising oil prices are leaving home owners out in the cold, according to an X-Ray investigation.
This winter the number of homes in north Wales targeted by heating oil thieves has almost tripled and the devastating practice is costing residents hundreds, sometimes thousands of pounds.
Between October and December last year 43 homes in the north of the country were burgled, with numerous community halls, churches and village buildings also targeted.
At the same time the price of heating oil rose from around 41 pence a litre to a staggering 73 pence a litre, meaning an average 500 litre tank would cost £365 to fill, compared to £205.
According to Consumer Focus Wales 16 per cent of people living in Wales are off the gas mains - that's in comparison to nine per cent in England.
97 year old Alice lives in one of the 143,000 homes in Wales that use domestic heating oil.
Last December, her daughter Sue Nicholls filled up her heating oil tank while her mum was in hospital having a hip operation. Two days later, it had all gone. Just over a thousand litres had been taken, at a cost of around £800.
Sue Nicholls and her mum Alice
Sue told us: "I wonder if these people will do it to their own mothers if they knew the situation that they'd left my mother in.
"And what would've happened if she was at home. Then the house would've been cold. So in one respect it was good that she was in the hospital, but in another respect not very good at all."
The worrying trend has prompted a large scale investigation by North Wales Police.
PC Gary Aldous is on the trail: "the individuals who we believe are doing this kind of crime, they know what they are doing, they have got all the equipment ready and obviously they've got an industry and are selling it on.
"We've only actually caught somebody in the process of doing it on the one occasion. It's not something that's definitely happening of a night time either, we've got suspicion on one of the other jobs we've been at, that it's been as early as seven o'clock in the evening."
He says the thefts have shocked the local community: "having looked at the crime figures since November, I've had 32 thefts of oil, and over 12 village areas, which has had a massive impact on those communities."
Reverend John Jones is responsible for two churches in South Flintshire, in Nercwys and Treuddyn, both of which have been hit by heating oil thieves twice this winter.
Reverend John Jones
He said: "it's been absolutely freezing at times. We've shortened services because the breath that was coming out my mouth at the alter was like icicles.
"We have a somewhat elderly congregation and it's just not fair. I truly wish they could appreciate the distress that they are bringing to communities and especially to the elderly and those who are vulnerable."
And despite the weather starting to warm up, and the price of oil falling again, the thieves aren't being put off.
Only a couple of weeks ago self employed builder Ian Davies from Mold was hit: "It was about half past seven one night. I heard a little bit of knocking on the fence and didn't really pay much attention to it, until the next night when I turned my heating on and of course it didn't work. So I went outside, had a look, the lid was off the tank and it had been drained dry."
Mr Davies lost just over a hundred pounds worth of fuel. He's now considering building a concrete wall around the tank and only fills it with 25 litres at a time: "Cheeky people, they just don't care about anybody or anything. It's really low."
The following advice is given to people to help them protect their heating oil tanks:
- The more difficult you make it for a thief to get to your tank, the more chances you have of putting them off.
- Place your tank so that it can't be viewed from the main road but can easily be seen from inside your house.
- Use plants and shrubbery around it to make it difficult or painful to access, for example planting holly or gorse bushes. A small trace of blood or clothing can also help the police catch the thieves!
- Install security lighting around the tank. You can buy lights which only turn on when someone walks into their beam.
- Check the amount of oil in your tank regularly and, if you can, only fill it up with small quantities, leaving the rest of it somewhere out of site in containers.
- If it's affordable, install a metal cage or guard around the tank. Get advice though on how much space you need around the tank to make sure it can "breathe".
- Watch out for unusual vans or lorries in your village which are parked close to homes or gardens, if you have your suspicions contact your local police station.
- Buy a closed shackle padlock for your tank which is difficult to get through with a bolt cutter. Remember, however, that although this will put off some thieves, others are simply encouraged to drill through the tank instead, causing more expense.
- You can also buy alarms to put inside the tank which only go off when the oil drops below a certain level or faster than it should.
- If money is no object, you can install CCTV around your house although the bill for this can be hundreds, if not thousands of pounds.
Just remember with all these security measures, ensure the oil tanker that arrives with your delivery is able to get to the tank in your garden to fill it up.