TV Licensing detector vans - menace or myth?

If you were born in the 1970's, then the prospect of a TV detector van was more terrifying than Lou Ferrigno's Hulk chasing you (the stuff of my nightmares, at least). These people could see into your house? Christ, better get that TV licence paid Mum, or we're all going to jail.

Curious then, that a request last year made under the Freedom of Information Act about how TV Licensing identifies households without a licence, was denied.

The BBC refused to answer questions concerning how many detection devices the corporation possessed, how often they were deployed and the technical specification of TV detection devices, if they existed at all. A complaint was then raised with the Information Commissioner's Office, who promptly investigated why the beeb wouldn't comment.

Rather frustratingly, the ICO sided with the BBC, but in explaining their position the BBC made some rather curious statements:

The BBC explained that the number of detector vans in operation, the location of their deployment and the frequency is not common knowledge. It relies on the public perception that the vans could be used at any time to catch evaders. This perception has built up since the first van was launched in 1952 and has been a key cost effective method in deterring people from evading their licence fee.

The BBC state that to release information which relates to the number of detection devices and how often they are used will change the public’s perception of their effectiveness. If the deterrent effect is lost, the BBC believes that a significant number of people would decide not to pay their licence fee, knowing how the deployment and effectiveness of vans and other equipment will affect their chances of success in avoiding detection.

If the thought had already crossed your mind that TV detector vans were an imaginary deterrent, what do you think now?

[The Register]


  • Paul N.
    If the vans do exist they likely scan for the EM radiation sent out from a CRT screen. That technology does work and would work from the street to detect an active screen. However, this would mean any LCD/plasma wouldn't show up.
  • Netizen
    Correct me if I'm wrong, but they haven't actually used the detector van in TVL propaganda in many years have they? It's little more than an urban myth, and a not-very-believable one at that. The new angle of 'we've got a database, durr!' actually makes sense. Either way, it's a shame they renewed the contract with Capita, horrible company who probably do more to damage the BBC's public image (through TVL intimidation) than any number of complacent producers.
  • Courtster
    I thought everyone knew that 'detector vans' were just minibus's that went from area to area with staff in it. They get dropped off on the road and they walk round to the addresses that don't have a licence.
  • anon
    They cannot detect if you are watching TV, it's simply not possible. The TV transmitter is simply transmitting UHF/VHF signals, and you simply pick them up. Your ariel does this whether you are watching TV or not. How can the vans actually 'SEE' oh the signal in the co-axial cable is being processed and converted to a moving image? i.e. your TV is on? They cannot. They may detect the EM radiation from your TV but I doubt the BBC would have that kind of specialist equipment.
  • Paul S.
    @ Netizen Yeah, a database is no doubt the way business gets done, it's just curious that the BBC won't dismiss the notion. If they come knocking on your door, you're under no obligation to let them into your home, so they're still relying on this shadowy threat to frighten people, real or otherwise.
  • anon
    Oh and since most tv's now are LCD they have no chance of detecting it.
  • Halflife
    Crap! you have to have a licence to watch TV?
  • Gus
    I believe in dectetor vans! Father x-mas heard from the easter bunny that those two leprechauns, neighbours of the fairies that were abducted by aliens... were caught watching TV without a TV licensing! But what is £1.000 if you have a pot of gold?
  • Lorenzo
    It's again the Panopticon concept of continuous, anonymous surveillance, first postulated by Jeremy Bentham for the construction of prisons and later associated to society as a whole by Michel Foucault. By instilling the "possibility" that an unseen guard is watching you, you feel watched and are effectively controlled, whether said guard indeed exists or not. The same concept is reflected in a number of other recent bills and in the proliferation of video surveillance but assumes a basic fundamental, i.e. that the individuals watched do indeed care and are afraid of the possible consequences.
  • Jakg
    The evidence they provide (supposedly) is inadmissible in court as they refuse to provide any sort of calibration logs...
  • MB
    They actually have loads of TV detecting equipment. These pieces of highly specialised equipment are called eyes and ears. They see bright changing lights coming from your house, and stand outside your front door or windows to listen what you are watching and compare it to what is on broadcast TV at the time. That is how they have always detected TV viewing.
  • Duke
    According to their most recent advertising, they now have a database of every household in the country and they know who has a licence and who doesn't. That story sort of falls down though when someone from TV Licensing knocks on your door and asks if you have a licence - they should already know the answer and therefore have wasted time and effort travelling to my house to ask me.
  • Bob
    It's a DB comprised of all the data provided to them at point of sale in shops as required by law. Whenever you buy a TV from a shop they always take your house number and postcode, although you could simply lie to them and pay cash so there's no way of tracking you.
  • WBRacing
    The whole thing is a myth, designed to create enough paranoia that people are scared into paying for it out of fear. Remember the Vehicle Licensing adverts, with it's creepy music and threatening "we know where you live" voiceover. They differ however as they have a database and can distribute automatic fines. I live in Warwick for a year with no TV yet received almost fortnightly "Our detector vans are in your area. You don't have a licence and will be fined £££'s". It was very, very irritating as I did not have a TV! It was mere digs to me, somewhere to lay my head. Despite a dozen or so threats, they never knocked. Have you noticed that when you buy a TV you have to fill in the form declaring your address? The BBC simply have every address on file and assume you have a TV. It would seem the onus is on you proving you don't have a TV there, not for them to prove you do!
  • Mike
    I had a knock at my door, detector van outside. Oldish guy on his own asking me if I had a licence as it was showing that my address had a colour TV. I had a feeling I would get a knock as I saw the van a few days earlier plus I was getting notices from the TVL. I told him to do his job properly and check the address again and they would find the licence was in my partners name and I was paying it by direct debit i my name. Duh idiots. He did and apologised and off he went. Didnt even show him the licence. I still get notices now after buying other TV's, DVD players etc. I just ignore them, waiting for a knock again, however I have now started filling the form in with my partners name.
  • Mike
    I bet Mickey Mouse gets a few visits from TVL.
  • lee
    Surely it doesnt matter if you have a tv or not. Because i could just be watching ITV or C4 all day. How can they prove i have been watching a bbc channel?
  • Ash
    I have always had a TV but have rarely paid for a TV licence. I have never had a knock at the door. What I have had are enough fortnightly reminders in the past to fill a recycling bin! When I reached the end of my teather I filled out one of the forms and returned it saying that I did not own a TV as I believed it to be poisonous, invasive crap. After this I received no further reminders even though I was watching TV almost every day!
  • Mike
    "Surely it doesnt matter if you have a tv or not. Because i could just be watching ITV or C4 all day. How can they prove i have been watching a bbc channel?" They check your wrists for self harming. Licence does not cover BBC it covers the actual TV or freeview box, TV card for PC etc.
  • Mike
    With bbc iplayer, itv catch up, etc there is no need for a TVL now, just get a decent monitor and watch it via your PC unless that is you have a huge TV.
  • ginger
    It is posible to detect which channel is being watched if you have the necessary equipment and expertise (which the BBC has). All TVs have a built in oscillator (or mini transmitter) which is used to convert the input TV signal to a lower frequency where it can be processed more easily and at lower power. Some of this internally generated signal leaks out usually through the aerial where it can be detected. By measuring the frequency of this signal it is possible to determine which channel is being watched. Whether there are any detector vans to measure this signal is another matter.
  • tom
    You need a license to watch any broadcasted material, BBC, ITV, SKY etc. Even if the origin isn't from the UK - how long will it be until you need a license to watch YouTube? You don't need a license to own a TV - so how do you prove you're only playing games or DVD's on it? (without showing them you have taken the aerial out)
  • joe b.
    Great article but what would be more interesting to know is what rights they have to enter your house, other powers etc. and what the best way to respond is. i once had a guy knock on my door after i moved house asking whether i had a licence ( ihad transferred it the week before) but he was incredibly rude so i gave him a peice of my mind and shut the door on him after tellong him to check his database, he started threatening all sorts of action, that was until he checked his database. i agree with the point about capita, terribly rude people.
  • Paul S.
    Good point Joe - the article wasn't specifically about that, but it'd be interesting to look into. As far as I'm aware, a person working on behalf of TV Licensing has no rights to enter a property; they have no powers bestowed upon them to search your home for any reason.
  • disneynut
    well guys I must be one of the oldies on here becauseI remember the detector vans coming round, white vans with " detector van or licensing" on the sides, a little white dish on the top that could be turned round to the direction of the house they wanted to know about, now im not talking 50's & 60's here im talking 70's & 80's lol someone in the house would sit close to the window or door and shout if the van came into the street so you could turn off the TV, they still knocked the Even recently when we moved house i had the " van" turn up and a guy demand the licence, which i had to provide or I'd end up in court. It is also true that as long as you have a TV or some means of watching TV you are requested to have a TV licence, even if you only have sky or just watch the odd show on your PC, This was told to me by the licensing department
  • MB
    > You don’t need a license to own a TV - so how do you prove you’re only playing games or DVD’s on it? (without showing them you have taken the aerial out) It's true. You do not need a license to own a TV, just to watch broadcast TV. You can watch BBC on watch again over the internet, on a PC plugged into your TV. How do you prove it? You can always cut the end off the aerial cable, and take a photo of this and you TV not connected to the aerial. Then when (and if) TV licensing ever take it to court you can prove your abidance of the law. You can also take along the 20 threatening letters from TV licensing and copies of your letters telling them that you do not watch broadcast TV.
  • MB
    > It is also true that as long as you have a TV or some means of watching TV you are requested to have a TV licence, even if you only have sky or just watch the odd show on your PC, This was told to me by the licensing department You only need a license if you watch a show as it is broadcast (eg via a TV card and aerial) on your PC. If you watch again after it is broadcast, you don't need a license.
  • xargle
    TV detectors do work. One for CRTs whereby you can actually pick up the picture being watched. Secondly you can pick up the intermediate frequency of the reciever (an unintended weak signal that is transmitted from any recievers back up the aerial) - this'll work for everything. You can use a normal scanner to tune to the IF stage of most things. As for accuracy and usefulness they're debateable. The density of TVs in residential areas means detection's pretty well meaningless. Technically it's certainly harder to do than it used to be with CRTs and the output less useful. It's far easier to look through the front window, and the use of the database is much more effective.
  • CC
    In the 1980's I worked for the TVRLO, and I can assure you that when used, the vans could indeed pick up signals from TVs that were in use. However, they were far more effective when simply driven round estates, parked outside schools at 0830 and 1500, and parked in shopping centres at lunchtimes! The number of licences purchased in an area used to rise dramatically when the van was about.
  • Mike H.
    Funnily enough I was having this conversation at work today, as I don't actually watch telly, I just play games, so understandably believe I shouldn't be paying a license for a telly I don't use. I actually work for Capita (not TV license bit) (oh and sorry yes they are a horrid bunch of people to work for as well as deal with). One of the managers came in and the lad who insisted the mystical vans existed asked him, who promptly informed us that he worked previously on the TV License contract, that said vans don't exist, and the majority of people were caught from being grassed up.
  • Neil
    The licensing enforcement officers only have the right to call at your property under "Implied Consent" i.e. it is reasonable for them to think that they can knock your door the same as anyone else. You can take this implied consent away in writing stating that their letters and visits constitute harassment as you do not need a license. Under the law if you notify them that you consider their behaviour harassment then they must stop or be liable to action through the courts. This applies to letters, phone calls and visits. This approach has worked for many people, who find that they are left alone for up to 4 years, The TVL will eventually start harassing you again as they think circumstances might have changed if so just restate that you don’t need a license and tell them to leave you alone as before.
  • Daniel
    'Posted by tom | January 5th, 2009 at 1:54 pm You need a license to watch any broadcasted material, BBC, ITV, SKY etc. Even if the origin isn’t from the UK – how long will it be until you need a license to watch YouTube? You don’t need a license to own a TV – so how do you prove you’re only playing games or DVD’s on it? (without showing them you have taken the aerial out)' After browsing through these comments I noticed that the above seems to be a common misunderstanding of the law. Not possessing a TV licence is a criminal offence and so you are entitled to the presumption of innocence. It is not up to you to prove that you are not using a television to watch broadcasted material; the burden of proof is on the TV licensing officials. The only way you will you be caught is if you are foolish enough to let them in when they come calling. They have no rights of access to your property to carry out a search unless they have a warrant; and even then, to get a warrant they need to show under Section 366 of the Communications Act 2003 '...that there are reasonable grounds for believing— (a) that an offence under section 363 [not having a licence] has been or is being committed, (b) that evidence of the commission of the offence is likely to be on premises specified in the information, or in a vehicle so specified, and (c) that one or more of the conditions set out in subsection (3) is satisfied, he may grant a warrant under this section.' Subsection (3) being: '(a) that there is no person entitled to grant entry to the premises or vehicle with whom it is practicable to communicate; (b) that there is no person entitled to grant access to the evidence with whom it is practicable to communicate; (c) that entry to the premises or vehicle will not be granted unless a warrant is produced; (d) that the purpose of the search may be frustrated or seriously prejudiced unless the search is carried out by a person who secures entry immediately upon arriving at the premises or vehicle.' In short, unless they have actual evidence of you watching television you can refuse them entry and they cannot do a thing; merely declining to cooperate with them is not enough to get a warrant. Lastly, I also noticed some confusion about what you need a licence for. Contrary to popular belief it is not to own a television, but only to watch television broadcasts on it. These extracts from the legislation should makes things a bit clearer: Section 363 of the Communications Act 2003 - Licence required for use of TV receiver '(1) A television receiver must not be installed or used unless the installation and use of the receiver is authorised by a licence under this Part. (2) A person who installs or uses a television receiver in contravention of subsection (1) is guilty of an offence.' As you can see you need a licence for a 'television receiver', not a television. And the definition of a 'television receiver' is: Regulation 9 (1) of The Communications (Television Licensing) Regulations 2004 (No. 692) '...“television receiver” means any apparatus installed or used for the purpose of receiving (whether by means of wireless telegraphy or otherwise) any television programme service, whether or not it is installed or used for any other purpose.' Have fun quoting these to the next rude jobsworth who calls to your home. Regards, A solicitor
  • conversionvansforsale
    With all of these advantages to van leasing, it is important to note that there are some disadvantages. The biggest one of those is that one does not actually own the van at any time. Even during the period that the individual is driving the van it is not theirs. It always remains the property of the leasing company.
  • Jonah
    There are basically 5 vans capable of detecting a TV signal, the dozens of other vehicles are just vans. One van is used to display to the media in order for TV Licensing to spread their propaganda, the others are used as part of their field "operations" however any evidence obtained isn't admissible in court, rendering them pretty much useless. The bottom line is, the only way to get prosecuted is if you are dumb enough to sign a bit of paper handed to you by an "officer" Another thing, TV Licensing officers are just glorified school playground bullies, the type who used to steal lunch money when the were 10, these guys are employed on the basis of a relatively low salary but make thousands of pounds a year in bonuses from "sales". Personally I don't get why people are frightened of TV Licensing letters, just ignore them, by replying and complaining you're basically fulfilling the purpose of these mailings by giving information to them. That is the whole intent behind the scattergun approach of these letters, it is about getting information, because in reality they know little about you! Let them send letters, the only way they'll stop is if people begin to ignore them
  • George M.
    How could a van pick up a specific EM field when every single power cable, electrical handheld device, toaster ....... well, you name it really, if it has wiring or runs on electricity it puts out a EM field. Surely there would be far too much disruption to gain an accurtate reading from, for arguements sake, about 15 feet away? I dont think the technology exists, otherwise im sure theyd have found a beeter use for it by now, finding earthquake victims using em fields from cellular devices???
  • Norm
    Funny I was just thinking about those propaganda license vans so I typed it in google to see some of your remarks, very cheerful lol,,. Dang it, I hate the BBC (broken biscuit company), they are very rude and assume every household has a TV. I have had several visits from their so called officers asking if I got a TV license, I always say no & when he/she asks to come in to verify it, I always so no it's not convenient right now. One of them was ever so persistant, even after I said no I don't have a TV, he kept talking through my letter box saying Mr,**** I am offering you a chance to pay weekly and kept tapping on my living room window, the little weed eventually got sick and left, poor little bugger might of been on bonus but without a spreadsheet lol. They don't have any authority to enter your home, there just nosey threatening busy bodies! who cant do a proper days honest days work (job). I do say the bbc produce some brilliant marvellous shows with lavish scenes and all. but why should I buy a license when I really only watch TV, 1hr/month. Too expensive works out around £10 for an hour of maybe it might be good. Now here's my admission, I now have a live in partner and she likes watching TV every night, so I went and bought a license. I think maybe I could be out one day and the dreaded beeb could come to ask her about a license, she might say yes its in the top drawer, top drawer, top drawer, top drawer beside last weeks episode of the repeated widely acclaimed bbc dramas. . . . . .
  • matthew
    if they do exist why do they need to come into your home to check if you have a television or not. i think it's all a load of balony if i'm honest. never have or never will pay my license as i think it is a waste of money. i mean who thought it would be a good idea to charge people to sit at home on their arse and watch a tv they brought with their own money.
  • tckevin
    I note that the vast amount of responses seem to think that "TV Licensing" is some sort of actual company. It is not. It is a trade marked and has a copyrighted art. It belongs to the BBC. Nobody can work for " TV Licensing" as it is not a physical entity as a company it is a copyrighted and trademarked name owned by the BBC. The people who harass, or as they would put it, "communicate" with the general public is a company called Capita who are allowed to carry out business using the trademark name of "TV Licensing" on behalf of the BBC. The employees of this company have as much right to demand entry into your home as a Tesco cashier. They are not "officers" or any kind of legal "officials" - each of them is just a salesperson with nearly as much authority as a Tesco cashier. Please see for a fuller explaination.
  • Alex E.
    haha, the bbc detector vans? Total crap, i use my tv,s for dvd,,s video,s and games. If these detector vans are so clever why have i never had a guy from capita knock on my door and say, " mmm we detected your watching a film,, calle_d gears of war, modern warfare,"
  • David A.
    Thankfully, the BBC don't make cars. If they did, you would have to buy a BBC Trabant XLR, (keep it off road, untaxed and unused) - before you could legally buy a Mondeo etc.
  • chris
    i kept getting letters from the tv licensing people, i phoned them and told them that i didnt watch tv, i said i had a aeriel but it doesnt work. i said i had a xbox and laptop which i had to declare. the woman said as long as i dont watch tv as its being broadcasted i dont need a licence. she also said that they will phone me and let me know when they r going to do a spot check. so theyre gonna phone me and let me kno when they r coming round. so even iff i am watching tv ill just unplug the aeriel after then call me and let me kno when theyll be here lol.
  • paul
    One it,s simple just don,t answer the door to them and even if you open the door just don,t answer there question Never give your name and even better record it .tv licensing are scum and would lie thought the teeth to get you to court with a tv or not Why should i pay 145 pounds per year for crap and repeats. The bbc have lost the plot making pay to watch say something live outside uk.
  • Father C.
    I stopped paying for a licence years ago, they then sent me ever increasing threats to get me to pay up. Finally got the 'you will be getting an authorised vist' letter... about 6 weeks later unexpected caller turns up, didn't answer the door as I saw him pull up outside and he looked like he was TVL gestapo, I could just tell. Off he went. I thought he'll probably be back later and sure enough he was. This time I answered the door, asked me my name I refused that one, then asked 'do I have a TV?' Yes. 'Do you have a licence?' No, I don't need one. Why? hes asked, I don't watch live TV. 'Can you prove it?' he said. Yes I said. I let him in. Stand there I said pointing to spot on the floor, I turned on the TV, just white fuzzy snow no picture, changed channels a few times, still the same fuzzy snow. I profferred that I use the TV for DVD's and some old VHS tapes. He made some notes on a form and said he would update their records and left. Was in the house about 1 minute. Haven't heard from them since, I doubt they will maintain such silence forever though.
  • Father C.
    Well, well, well, what an incredible coincidence, less than 24 hours after my last comment what drops on my doormat today? A letter from TVL threat squad asking if my circumstances have changed, you couldn't make this up!! For reference they only leave you alone for a couple of years, I have avoided 3 payments to them since I gave them the runaround for a good while in the beginning. I like the line in the letter they use to justify their evil ways of not leaving you alone....'as many people move home or change their circumstances we're not able to put a permanent stop on letters' well I think you could if you really tried, after all you do have computers so it wouldn't be difficult to stop sending annoying junk mail to me!! Just hit the right buttons on your database. Simples. Needless to say I will be reconfirming my unchanged circumstances.
  • For i.
    [...] TV Licensing detector vans – menace or myth? The BBC explained that the number of detector vans in operation, the location of their deployment and the frequency is not common knowledge. It relies on the public perception that the vans could be used at any time to catch evaders. This perception has built up since the first van was launched in 1952 and has been a key cost effective method in deterring people from evading their licence fee. [...]
  • timothy h.
    i was going to try and be calm and say something half decent about the tv license officers and the bbc but then i changed my mind! they are a bunch of cunts ( thats the collective noun for a gathering of tv natzi policemen)
  • Jerry S.
    I resent contributing to the BBC boss who gets the sack for incompetence and goes home with £450.000 of our money after four months. It's a disgrace. I always though it was ok to finance the BBC with a licence and keep it free of sponsors, however when our money is wasted like this and the corruption is flaunted in our face then it's time we should all make a stand. If every body refused to pay...then what? They tried to introduce wheel clamping in France but the French stood together and refused to accept them. They filled the locks with super glue and they soon abandoned them. Just to add insult to injury, do we all think the likes of Graham Norton or Jonathan Ross should earn 10's of millions per annum. Shouldn't we have a say where the money goes?
    SAY NO TO TV LICENCE FEE Well stated Jerry Seinfelt and others. The time has come to wake up to the nonsense of the tv licence fee. As much as I have enjoyed many of the BBC productions for a lifetime, I simply cannot support any longer an organisation that covered up and allowed a raving peodophile to commit crimes for decades and then payed off its incompetent COE with an outrageous amount of Tax payers money, not to mention all the other celebrities with a personality disorder that have boarded the gravy train. Time to take a stand and call their bluff.
  • Smithers
    You need a license to drive a car,and a license to own a firearm,because you can injure or kill someone with them. So why do I need a license for a tv unless i'm going to throw it off a tall building in a town centre during the january sales shopping stampede.
  • Chris B.
    I am an American that lived in London in 1978, The BBC sent a detector van around and my daughter sussed me out to them when they knocked on my door on a Saturday morning and asked her what she was doing. She was a wee thing back then, she opened the door and showed them the telly and said she was watching cartoons..a few days latter they sent me a summons for a "crime against the crown, to whit, watching a television without a license." So off to court I went with a solicitor's advice to plead guilty with mitigating circumstances, I was American and ignorant of the law. When I got to court (my first time), I was impressed at the pomp and powdered wigs and the high bench where three judges sat. I was arrayed at a huge table to myself, and the prosecution had Perry Mason and a host of other solicitors. Things were going well for me as far as my being foreign to the tv law. At one point the judges were conferring and were ready to dismiss the case when Perry Mason emphatically pleaded, "my Lord, it is a matter of cost" or in another words, the ruling would set a legal precedent that would have severe repercussions on the BBC and all the UK in general. So the judges asked me about in America did we have a similar law and I replied no we have commercial TV which pays the broadcast costs. Then I was asked if I was married, I replied, Yes your Lordship. Then I was asked if my wife was American, I replied no. Was my wife British, I again replied no. They then asked where my wife was from. I told then Ireland. At that point I was immediately convicted and fined forty pounds court costs and the license which at that time was 25 pounds. With seriousness you would have thought I kilt the bloody Queen!
  • Sheogorath
    My story: I live in a communal building where I'm the only resident who doesn't pay their TV tax, and when the Capita jobsworths came round, I wouldn't have let them in except that they could hear my TV going. They had only just walked into the lounge when from my Son¥ Bravia LCD TV could be heard "Blah blah blah blah, Radio 4 Extra." With the multi-coloured bubbles floating up the screen in addition, they had no option but to say they would make another check on my compliance in another couple of years (their version of an apology) before f###ing off back to below their rock. To lighten their mood (because I'm an evil bugger), I said they were welcome to come back sooner in the event my radio licence (obsolete for 43 years at the time) required renewal.

What do you think?

Your comment