January 19, 2011 - Metal Theft
After a brief period of reduced prices for metals like aluminum, brass and copper, the demand for these materials has increased. As an example, copper was selling for $3/pound last July; now the price is up to $4.50/pound. Brass and aluminum are also trending upward in price. Typical of the supply-demand dynamic, the prices are going up as well, so criminal "recyclers" are busy stealing these materials again from anywhere they can find them. To be sure, metals thefts are a problem regardless of their market value; in fact, as the prices drop, the amount of thievery may go up to compensate for the lower per-pound value.
Metal thieves are stealing copper wire from sprinkler systems, air conditioning units, electric motors and most anywhere else they can find it. Wire thieves cause much damage in their pursuit of copper. To get just a few pounds of copper, they will pull hundreds of feet of the wire from, for example, a community park sprinkler system, causing tens of thousands of dollars in damage. Farmers also suffer large losses when the thieves take the copper wire out of irrigation pumps, a common problem. Not only does the repair cost many hundreds of dollars, but the farmer also ends up with a setback in crop production when the irrigation pump(s) become non-functional. Copper can be found in many machines and devices, so if they are accessible to the thieves, chances are they will come after these things if protective measures are not taken.
Items made of aluminum are more abundant than copper or brass, but aluminum is less valuable. Metal thieves often ride bicycles through residential neighborhoods and business and industrial areas looking for anything made of aluminum. This includes cans that residents and businesses have designated for recycling, aluminum wheels, hardware and other items. These thieves know the trash pick up schedule for our neighborhoods and can often be found digging through the trash that has been set out on the curb for pick up, searching for recyclables.
Brass is also an expensive metal sought by thieving recyclers. Brass is much less common, but it is sometimes used for valves in plumbing applications. The larger industrial businesses have been victimized in the past for the large valves that exist for water routing and pressure regulation. Thieves have gone so far as to hook a chain from a vehicle onto the valve to tear it from its mount. These valves cost thousands of dollars, but when sold for recycling, the thief is lucky to get $20. It is a shameful waste, but it seems to make no difference to the thieves whose main goal is to get some money for the day's drugs - usually methamphetamine (crank).
It may seem obvious that if recycling companies refused to buy stolen objects made of expensive metals, the problem would decrease or end altogether. In fact, there are both state and local laws that require recycling companies to record seller information and comply with other rules that make them exercise more diligence when purchasing metals from people "off the streets." It appears that the amount of compliance by local recyclers is fairly high. The problem, however, is that stolen items are making their way to other counties where enforcement is lax or non-existent. Metals thieves have no problem unloading their stolen materials, so the thefts continue. This fact leaves everyone vulnerable to continued metal losses, unless steps are taken to make such thievery more difficult.
As long as there are willing buyers of recyclable metals, there will be thieves looking for easy opportunities to steal them. The police are very vigilant in monitoring suspicious persons who appear intent on stealing recyclables. We make arrests daily of these kinds of thieves, and they are often drug addicts, homeless and most are essentially broke. Since they are desperate for drugs, they are willing to take the risk of being caught stealing and to add to the problem, the courts and jail systems treat these kinds of criminals very leniently. This leaves the victims and potential victims in the position of having to take extraordinary measures to protect their items containing valuable metals. Some of the preventative measures being taken are installing locking cages on such things as air conditioners and valves. Alarms are effective and can have a deterrent effect, and camera systems are useful in identifying the thieves after the fact. We also strongly urge the use of serial numbers on anything that has a surface large enough to be marked and, of course, members of the community need to be quick to report suspicious persons and behavior to the police without delay.