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back to article BBC's TV detector vans to remain a state secret

The Information Commissioner has ruled against a request to force the BBC to reveal the inner workings of its TV detector vans. Although most detection is done by database the Beeb still claims to maintain a fleet of vans which can tell if a particular address contains a TV. If you buy or rent a TV or buy a PC tuner card in the …

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If they had them and they workrd then they would WANT us to know!

So they don't have anything that works then? That is how it looks from their statements.

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Black Helicopters

There are no detector vans...

"the broadcaster refused to give further details because if it did so it would damage the public's perception of the effectiveness of TV detector vans"

Says it all, really.

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Anonymous Coward

no title

If the vans were effective we'd have adverts along the lines of a jet black humvee-style detector van that follows someone home from work when smashes into their living room shouting "YOUR TV IS NOT LICENSED TO RECEIVE BROADCAST TRANSMISSIONS" in a monotone robot voice.

If the BBC don't want me to watch TV without paying a license, they shouldnt broadcast it into my house without my permission. (stupid I know, but fuck em)

Anyone remember the DVLA advert where a black rack tower follows a bloke home and is told "you cannot escape" the database. The funniest thing is that the advert was serious.

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Happy

Shh...

They probably dont want the public to know that they can only detect the old CRT tellys and are useless against modern tellys...

that's between me and you, right?

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Black Helicopters

detector vans are a joke

When i moved about 400miles across country i kept getting letters telling me that me old address had a TV "detected" and i would be taken to court - dispite the fact there wasn't even electricity at the old house let alone a tv!

It took dozens of phone calls and the eventually threat of lawyers to get them off my back.

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Pirate

Threatening letters

One of our local newspaper journalists wrote about this not so long ago.. basically the whole system seems to revolve around sending threatening letters, which is exceptionally annoying if you don't have a TV. I'm currently selling a property which is empty, and although the TV licensing people have been told this, they STILL send threating letters promising legal action.

Anyway, a link to the story is here: http://www.bedsonsunday.com/bedsonsunday-news/DisplayArticle.asp?ID=260556

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Bronze badge

Unsurprising...

Thats unsurprising, but I do find it funny that releasing the details around the van's would 'alter the publics perception' ergo, yeah, we've got some transit vans, but they don't really work with modern telly's, freeview/freesat/cable or streaming TV services.

I still think its a shame that the Beeb didn't design themselves around a subscription service when freeview launched - then you could have the choice once analogue was switched off whether to use the BBC services or not.

Oh, and if I ever came to power, it would be called the TV Tax, not TV licence.

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Black Helicopters

Is detection really that easy nowadays?

I understand that it was straightforward to detect a good old analog TV with a CRT, because all that HT circuitry would ring like a bell and radiate a lot of EMF. I really don't think it would be quite so easy for a van on the street to spot a low-power USB stick tuner plugged into a laptop up on the 4th floor, for example.

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Flame

Licences - bah

Of course, one can write to them by recorded delivery saying "no I do not receive television broadcasts so I do not pass go and do not need to pay £200 (whatever)" They will "remove" you from the database and promptly start chasing "The Occupier" (twisting the DPA no doubt, however...)

Not anonymous because I still don't need a licence

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It's what they don't tell you

The very fact that they are withholding the information indicates that

a) the myth of 'detector vans' is greater than the reality so they're in no rush to change that perception

and

b) any genuine ability to detect TVs in use is easily defeated when you know how it works, so they'll hope they can keep it quiet for as long as possible

It's the sign of an outdated organisation (TV Licensing) desperately clutching at what little revenue they still can before they realise it's just not going to work any more.

With mobile content, on-demand services and the like, the line between what they can and can't restrict to licence-payers is becoming increasingly blurred. There simply won't be enough licence inspectors to check up on everyone with a mobile, laptop, sky box etc.

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Boffin

They do work

Having worked with people that developed some of the equipment that goes into these vans (although not in the same department) I can tell you that they do work.

They had a test van that just looked like an old camper van and they have been known to park it outside the house of one of the people in the team and tell him the next day what he was watching!

I'm not going to go into details (for the same reason the FOI was denied) but I can tell you two things:

1) They don't work in any of the ways that you are likely to come up with unless you are already in the business

2) They do work pretty well and without some reasonable knowledge of the workings, you probably couldn't prevent them detecting your set

Posted AC because I'm probably not even allowed to say that much!

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Alert

What exactly consitutes a TV?

Back in the good old days, a TV was an analogue tuner and a CRT. Picking either/both of them up from a few yards (we are talking pre-metric) away whilst not exactly trivial, was possible. A TV composed of a LCD and a UHF ADC is a lot harder. Proving that the two components are in fact a working TV is harder still, whereas formerly any CRT in a domestic situation was almost certainly a TV tube.

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Stop

TV Licensing??

You have to pay a license fee for over-the-air television??

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Empty vans

They've given the game away in the response: "the broadcaster refused to give further details because if it did so it would damage the public's perception of the effectiveness of TV detector vans"

Which I read as "if the BBC reveal what's inside these things, they'll prove once and for all that all is in the back is a guy with tea making facilities and a few newspapers."

Surely if there was lots of very effective technology inside these vans, they would say so? As a result, their "no comment" attitude is just as damaging as any potential actual comment would be.

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Stop

Bullshit-o-meter gives a strong reading, Sir

"After answering part of the request the broadcaster refused to give further details because if it did so it would damage the public's perception of the effectiveness of TV detector vans."

Mainly because they don't do anything. They are nothing more than a fear-inducing device to make you think "shit... they're detecting in my road.. I better do something quick!".

Let me explain the flaw in a TV detection van. The supposed principle is that any piece of reception equipment will re-transmit the signals its received after demodulation. This is true, however the nature of those transmissions is unstable.

The reason you can "tune" any radio device is because the signal is on a carrier frequency. By modulating this carrier (amplitude for vision, frequency for audio) you can encode the information. The point is, the information is always around the carrier frequency in one way or another.

Now, demodulate that signal and you're left with the raw information. The frequency jumps about wildly, the amplitude is unstable, there's practically nothing to lock on to. The best you can hope for is the presence of a sync signal, at a fixed rate of 50Hz for vertical or 15kHz for horizontal. But realistically, these could be anything from background noise to mains hum. You're just not going to be able to accurately deduce the reception of a video signal.

Meanwhile, there's the transmission strength issue. As anybody whose played with a science fair electronic set knows, even with 9V of battery behind it, you don't get more than a few feet unless you have a serious mast handy and a decent power transmitter. The maximum voltage is (or should be) around 1V inside a telly, before its seperated into bits for assembling the picture. This isn't going to transmit more than a few centimetres from the television.

Anything that is higher than this won't be a proper TV signal, and comes under the same heading as background noise.

So, in short, TV detector vans are pretty impossible to work unless televisions have a built-in "find me evading licensing here" beacon. The vans are a scare tactic. The BBC/TV Licensing have a database of all addresses with licence. Anyone who doesn't fit this gets a visit from TVL agents, who think they have police powers. They have in the past turned up at people's houses who have nothing even close to a telly, and told them straight faced "you have a television because we've detected it - now pay your licence fee!".

Oh and of course, if you call your local neighbourhood bobby to resolve the issue, they will take sides with the TVL. I'm afraid the BBC is most definitely on the corrupt organisations list, along with the police, the court system and the government.

-- Richard

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Boffin

Won't it be great....

..if MythBusters were to pop over to the UK and test this myth out?

It's easy to detect a TV if it's in front of you, it's not so easy if it's in amongst 100 other TVs or up high in a multi-story flat.

Much easier to have a empty van with a fancy looking aerial on it with the words "BBC Detector Van" blazing on the side. Darn sight cheaper too.

Odd that no person has ever posted (not even anonymously?) that they've been in a working detector van. Have they all been sworn to secrecy all these years?

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Stop

I call Bullsh*t!

If they really worked and we *knew* that then why would people stop buying a licence?

It's believing that they probably don't work that is gonna encourage folks not too get one i'd say.

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Unhappy

TV License, don't you mean TV Tax...

I got red lettered by these twats so I phoned them up. I made it quite clear that I don't own a tele and don't intend buying one ever, since I have a projector and 6 foot screen for my xbox and dvd player etc. The lady was very nice and updated 'my account'. The best she could do was a 3-month update, which means that in three months I'll start getting letters again. I hate the way that you have to prove that you don't have a tele - it should be the other way around. And they're so aggressive about it too. "If you don't pay up you face a massive fine and buggery in prison by bigger-boys...." They don't give a flying fook if their information is incorrect.

BTW is there anyway to get your name taken off the BBC's TV license database? If you don't own a TV then why should your name remain on there?

Next time I won't respond to the letters at all. I'll wait until they send someone to the door... I'll open it wearing a mankini and I'll do an Alan Partridge on them - sit down, lift both my legs up so they can see my dinner and cry out "search me search me".

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Bronze badge
Boffin

Out of date

I believe it is quite possible to pick up EM emissions from an old-fashioned CRT set using a directional antenna array, thereby proving its use and location once some triangulation has been done. I think it is even possible to see the picture, as there used to be some security fears over computer screens being read remotely.

But your modern LCD or plasma jobbie is a different beast altogether. I think you'll have a hard time detecting one of those.

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Thumb Up

Good

Those who campaign against the licence fee usually trot out one of four wobbly arguments:

1) "It's too expensive (but I pay for Sky)"

2) "I never watch BBC (but I pay to watch adverts on Sky)"

3) "We should have a choice over what we pay for (but, in reality, I'm too stupid to make decisions for myself because I prefer paying to watch utter dross followed by adverts on Sky)"

4) "I work for Sky."

So, with apologies to those who genuinely don't have a TV, I much prefer the option of bullying those who would see the end of our venerable, valuable though occasionally flawed BBC and turn British TV into the unwatchable 'experience' like what the Yanks have.

It's about quality over quantity, people.

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Anonymous Coward

this is the title

In the current climate, given the existence of a database of adresses, why bother putting anything more than a clipboard, driver, and a nice flask of tea (tartan flask, of course) in the things. Yes, it's possible to detect tv's that are plugged in and powered up, but why bother. Come to think of it, whilst I used to see the odd "detector van" stooging around as a kid, I couldn't honestly remember the last time I cast eyes on these mythical beasts.

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Anonymous Coward

How to avoid paying for a TV license

Its really quite simple - I've been doing it for years!

Don't have TV - yep thats all.

A DVD player, a PC, a console or two and a nice large LCD TV to use them with. True I could plug in an aerial and watch TV if I really wanted to - but I don't - I can't stand the majority of the trash that is on these days - those seasons I do like I simply buy boxed sets once they come out.

I get hassled by TV licensing true - but if you know the rules of the system then they are not even allowed to knock at your door - all you need to do is to write to them and "Withdraw implied consent" for them to visit your home. They will then need a court order to be able to come to your house.

Given I live on a private road they can't even come down that with their detector vans - however as I said I am doing nothing illegal, I have in fact informed them of exactly what I am doing - ie watching DVDs and they acknowledge this is legitimate, though a few years ago it was a different story.

TV licensing likes to assume you are guilty until you buy a TV license - I personally find this offensive so insist they play by the letter of the law and use every rule out there to make it harder for them at a minimum of effort for me.

There is plenty of info on line about what they can and cannot do - but the main thing to remember is they have no rights of entry without a court order - if they knock on your door I suggest you treat them the way you would a double glazing salesman.

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Hmmm

The licence fee is always an awkward one. I'm in favour of it in principle - it's not that expensive and it funds some great programming (especially if you compare it to the programming the Irish system funds for a not dissimilar amount of money per household per annum). Thus enforcing it is something I'm also in favour of.

However, I do wish that the paying public had more say in what the money gets spent on. I'm not talking about the Paxman-style criticism of some of BBC Three's lineup for example (although God knows that he had a point when he questioned the merits of programmes like "My Man-Boobs And Me"), but more on cash wasted on twits like Jonathan Ross. I don't have any objection to paying for a licence, but it's irksome to see so much of the money it raises spent on some waste of space. At least with the likes of the Mighty Boosh the budgets are small and they can recoup cash via DVD sales...

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Anonymous Coward

er...

Isn't

"After answering part of the request the broadcaster refused to give further details because if it did so it would damage the public's perception of the effectiveness of TV detector vans"

another way of saying

"After answering part of the request the broadcaster refused to give further details because if it did so it would have to admit that TV detector vans are ineffective" ?

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Two points

"After answering part of the request the broadcaster refused to give further details because if it did so it would damage the public's perception of the effectiveness of TV detector vans"

It would surely only be damaging if it proved they didn't work? So they obviously don't.

I'm not sure of the legal basis, but it would seem to me if I was challenged in court for no tv licence I have a right to defend my case by examining the workings of detection equipment, just as when challenging a speeding offence caught on camera.

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Joke

Waiting for the first idiot...

To say something like "But TVs only RECEIVE - they don't TRANSMIT so TV Detector vans can't possibly work!"

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Thumb Down

Of course the vans are just scams

They wouldn't keep pestering people who don't have a TV if they were real

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Thumb Up

Ok then...

"it would damage the public's perception of the effectiveness of TV detector vans"

That's just saying "there's nothing in then, which we don't want people to know otherwise they won't be worried into paying their licence fee"

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Thumb Down

It's a myth

Handheld detectors are the clipboards the "enquiry officers" carry and the detector vans are the minibuses they are carried round in. That's what I reckon anyway.

I don't have a TV so I don't have a licence and I keep getting these "enquiry officers" knocking on my door. The licence is enforced like a protection racket; don't pay for one and you get threatening letters and people knocking on the door.

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wrong attuide

"The BBC supported its claim with evidence that a growing number of people are dissatisfied with paying the licence fee"

so there responce is to be secritave and defncive about it

yer that will work

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Stop

Crazy Talk

"Requests for authorisations for the use of detection equipment must be made in writing to the Head of Sales and Marketing or anyone holding a more senior role within the TV Licence Management Team of the BBC" .... like the janitor, seriously the guy responsible for authorising requests that fall under RIPA is the S&M guy. That there is blue-pie-in-sky thinking.

"the number of detection devices and how often they are used will change the public’s perception of their effectiveness." .... so there is only one

"the technical elements of the detection devices would leave open the possibility of people analysing them to find weaknesses to evade detection equipment"... and the information we do retrieve is buggy and flawed.

TV licensing's database is simply the PAF so that's flawed too.

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Thumb Down

Oh really?

Look here Auntie - before making nice little generalised slurs about sites discussing the current licensing arrangements, take a moment to question whether or not you have the balls to actually risk naming one and having a constructive debate. If the answer is no, then sod off...

In this instance though, I'll save you the trouble... You're referring to www.tvlicensing.biz - the only major site with user participation on the topic. Yes, there are some people on there discussing evasion - but there are also a good many people who whilst remaining within the law, discuss the failings in the current arrangments. I'm used to be in the latter category, and resent your implication that I might be in the former...

Repeats have gotten so numerous in our schedules now that I think there is ample scope for a discussion as to whether Auntie is fit to be left holding the baby...

Martin.

(Muppetman from the site, though I don't pretend to speak on their behalf...)

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Happy

Vans? Wot vans?

Anyone ever seen a van? Anyone ever had a vist from the 'enforcers'? If yuo have, let this guy know .http://www.bbctvlicence.com/index.htm

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Silver badge
Boffin

Not difficult

It's not exactly rocket science. Television receivers are superhets (and therefore contain a local oscillator). Some of the LO signal couples into the antenna cable. Television antennas are highly directional, and have just enough bandwidth to transmit at the LO frequency.

Now, if the detector van's receiver was a superhet -- and, since this is the most sensitive kind of receiver, it's unlikely to be anything else -- then you could theoretically build a TV detector van detector, which would cut off the power to your TV when it detected the detector van's own local oscillator! But in order to do this, you would need to know the intermediate frequency used by the detector van's receiver, in order to work out the local oscillator frequency that you were looking for.

What I want to know is, WHY did the Government not mandate card readers on ALL digital receivers from the beginning of the switchover? Then the BBC could have broadcast their programmes scrambled, and anyone without a viewing card would also be without pictures. That would surely have been the fairest way to do it. It's inconceivable that nobody from the industry would have mentioned this possibility during the initial consultation, so on what grounds was it blocked?

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Self-fulfilling prophecy?

"After answering part of the request the broadcaster refused to give further details because if it did so it would damage the public's perception of the effectiveness of TV detector vans."

Isn't that just going to achieve the very thing that they were trying to avoid?

"We can't tell you that they're just full of old wire clothes hangers and cardboard boxes, because then you'd think they don't work..."

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Coat

Vans with spinning roofracks

I can confirm the existence of them - after TV Licensing sent me my licence (paid for by direct debit) and in the same post a letter telling me that I needed a licence or I'd have to pay a fine, I ignored the letter (there was no free way to contact them - their error not mine, why would I want to pay to tell them their database is rubbish) - a chap duly turned up in a spinning roofrack mobile.

He insinuated that he had the right of entry (he doesn't) and harrassed my other/better half for over an hour. Eventually I came home, told him to clear off and to make an appointment with me by letter. At no point had he asked to see the licence, so it wasn't shown to him.

He did go away and I got an appointment alright - at the magistrates court.

Defending myself, and taking along the last 15 years worth of TV licences and bank statements showing I was still paying - I predictably won the case (and costs), remarking "if it's all in the database, then clearly the database is rubbish" - much to the amusement of the bench.

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technically quite easy

Cathode Ray Tubes (remember them?) give off alpha particles (electrons) and miniscule amounts of X-rays.

Alpha particles don't travel far outside of the vaccuum of the CRT. A few centimetres of air is usually enough to stop them.

X-rays can travel quite a bit further, and can go through walls don't ya know, but I believe the amount of X-rays given off is very small indeed. Enough to be detectable from outside a building? I don't know - perhaps someone else does.

Of course there are other kinds of emissions from televisions - even the modern flat ones. Light, and sound in particular are technically quite easy to detect even without sophisticated equipment. If the enforcement officers possesses, oh, eyes and ears there's a good change he'll notice the flicker even through your drawn curtains, and when you open the door to him he's likely to reason the Eastenders theme tune he hears isn't coming from the radio in the bathroom.

So what kind of kit do they need in the vans? Kettles and teapots probably. And the harnesses for the unicorns right enough.

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Alien

Black Ops

Probably want to hide that they only have 2 vans and 6 employees in the 'fleet', and the rest funds the BBC black ops projects.

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Anonymous Coward

Well,

when I used to get sent to the Isle of Man, I was told by the locals that when the TV van came off the ferry (easy to spot because of antennas on the roof), people would just switch off the TV and goto a mates place or the pub. When word went around that the van had left, normal service would be resumed.

@laptop on the 4th floor. As long as it's not plugged into the mains, you don't need a license.

AC - cos I'm a coward !!

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They really could detect TVs, but

Some say the vans detect the leakage from the HF aerial cabling or wiring within the display unit. This assumes there is enough signal to detect and that it isn’t swamped by a neighbour’s setup; this is unlikely to work well IMO.

Others say that the picture displayed a CRT can be remotely regenerated by detecting the visible hf flicker coming from a room (thanks to the modulated beam intensities, this is very easy to do). Of course, pictures from LCDs or plasmas can’t be regenerated.

Me? I think the operators merely sit in their van and watch the intensity of light emanating from a room. They probably claim a match if the intensity and colours change in sympathy with what is being broadcast.

So my advice: close your curtains if you feel the need to watch a TV without paying the license tax.

I don’t own a license; thankfully I genuinely do not watch TV (I don’t think the program quality is worth the tax for it); instead I get VOD from t’internet :c)

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Joke

@ they do work

of course in the old days they had a 1in 4 chance of guessing the correct channel so saying they can tell what you were watching isn't much.

I wonder if tinfoil wallpaper (a househat) would prevent detection??

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Bronze badge

Used to work

20 odd years ago they used to detect either line flyback or IF signal (using RDF antenna to confirm location). Pretty easy for any amateur into RF (as I was at the time). TV's have always been "noisy" and very badly screened. Today's digital jobbies are unlikey to be much different, just different signals to choose from.

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They never called around

I used to never watch my tv, it wasn't connect to an aerial it only had a games console on it. The TV licence people wrote to me saying I needed a licence so I called them explained my setup and they said that shouldn't need a licence but they would send someone around to check, 3 years later no one had turned up yet.

They do this and wonder why people who do dodge paying when they don't even bother to check. I since bought sky and the playtv so now have a licence, who knows maybe I will get someone calling around to check tomorrow.

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Anonymous Coward

The cat is out of the bag

"After answering part of the request the broadcaster refused to give further details because if it did so it would damage the public's perception of the effectiveness of TV detector vans. The ICO agreed that if the deterrent was lost some people would not pay their licence fee."

So they are saying they would prefer not to admit that TV detector vans don't actually exist...

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Anonymous Coward

woooooh its the magical detector van

There is no detector van. My brother worked for BT when used to garage them there and they sat in the back of them on hot days. A few years later I went to a huge bonfire celebration and one of the magical mystery vans had been left parked outside. Suffice it to say, 20,000 odd people got to have a good look at the two benches - and nothing else - inside.

The BBC gather license fees by mailing every citizen in the country and issuing veiled threats. That is why they are going to lose their license fee arrangement very soon, they have annoyed too many people with their tactics. They have no huge database either. Oh, and for what its worth, if you owe the license fee and are avoiding it, don't answer the door to a postman.Its a favourite disguise of the TV license fee gatherers.

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Anonymous Coward

Legal disclosure?

I don't understand why the specific technology has not been disclosed as part of a legal action. After all I I was being taken to court on the basis on being detected, I would get full disclosure of exactly how the technology works. If you cannot prove the detector van did what you said it did, the evidence is invalid.

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Many years ago..

From what I read many years ago, the equipment in the vans was supposed to detect the RF radiated from local oscillator in the receiver.

However, I am not convinced as these guys were forever coming to my parents' house asking about a TV because there were a couple of aerials on the roof installed in the 1960s (of the Band I and Band III types). My dad would let these jokers in and show them every room in the house to demonstrate that they really didn't have a TV.

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Ah, the Database

That'd be the same database that issued my wife with a "we have no record of a licence" threatener within a week of sending a renewal reminder to the bloke that had been renting the house. Fortunately, mentioning the DPA and incorrect data stopped them that time.

At risk of getting close to cross-posting, the word "barratry" has been mentioned in another comments thread. Anyone feel wicked enough to updated the wiki to include "modus operandi of the Beeb licence people"?

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Silver badge

@DamnYank re.TV Licensing

Yes we do. The TV license fee is collected by an agency and passed on to the BBC to fund its operations. This is a long standing arrangement going back to the early years when the BBC was the only TV broadcaster in the UK. Later over-the-air broadcasters adopted the advertising payment model resulting in TV programmes being interrupted about every 20 minutes by adverts.

There have been court cases where people have successfully claimed that since their TV was incapable of receiving BBC transmissions, then they did not need to pay the license fee. These cases are very rare and usually involve technically capable defendants who have modified their TV sets. Most people just pay up and accept that what they actually get for their license fee is reasonable value (this opinion is open to great debate and argument).

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