Copper Theft Problem - American Public Power Association

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Copper Theft Problem - American Public Power Association


     Last Updated 03 Dec 06Metal Theft Problem

    (Source - The Detroit News)Point of Contact for this report;

    Rudy Holm

    Protective Security Advisor (PSA)

    Department of Homeland Security (DHS)Albuquerque, New Mexico

    Email –

    tel # 505-248-5298



    Problem Statement

    Metal theft is a worldwide problem, which has caused considerable damage to the infrastructure of the United States.

    A simplistic view is that this is a macro-example of Supply and Demand Economics. An increasing demand for metals by developing economies in China, India and elsewhere; combined with supply-side problems in the mines of South America and other factors, have caused the price of scrap metal such as copper wiring to triple in the last three years.Several vulnerabilities in our infrastructure and law enforcement response capability have been exploited by metal thieves. These include;

     Linear infrastructure is extremely difficult to protect. Much of the U.S. electrical

    transmission lines, rail road tracks, oil & gas pipelines, highways, etc lack

    consistent security measures that might otherwise deter would-be thieves.

     Inadequate security measures. Cameras, fencing, lighting, roving patrols, etc. are

    cost prohibitive given the extensive area that would be required to cover.

     Current laws and regulations can be exploited to the advantage of the criminals.

    For example, unless the thieves are caught red-handed, they frequently claim they

    “found” the metal. Making the possession of stolen metal illegal, such as highway

    lights, guardrails and other obviously stolen materials is a no-brainer.

    Most importantly, salvage dealers are not consistently required by law to obtain

    proper identification from people turning in “scrap” metal. By forcing individuals

    to present identification, and monitoring transactions on camera, law enforcement

    would have a better opportunity to pursue criminal investigations.

     Reporting – how? Industry is understandably reluctant is some cases to report

    break-ins and loss of materials, both from an internal company perspective and an

    external admission of potential vulnerability to company assets. When it is

    reported, it doesn’t necessarily get analyzed against other company data to

    provide rapid trend analysis, law enforcement leads, and investigative response.

     Reporting to whom? Another side of the same coin is to whom it is reported. The

    Information Sharing and Analysis Centers (ISACs) for each industry are a terrific

    mechanism for sharing situational awareness among industry partners, but may

    not be timely enough for a law enforcement response. The Federal Bureau of

    Investigation (FBI) is understandably focused primarily on terrorism

    investigations, and local Sheriffs and other local law enforcement assets are

    frequently overwhelmed by normal case loads.

    A number of potential measures and response recommendations are included on the next page to provide a possible way ahead in solving this nationwide problem.



    Potential Protective Measures and Response recommendationsProtective Measures;

    Security Upgrades – Cameras provide the best deterrence and investigative possibilities. Criminals will think twice if they feel their theft will be recorded for future prosecution. Although too expensive to cover the entire network, high-crime areas identified by trend analysis and recent reporting could provide a prioritized list of potential camera sites.Changing materials to reduce the attractiveness to criminals – This has worked in

    some areas of the country, although it does require some cost upon the part of industry. For example, replacing solid copper with copper over steel can make materials less attractive to would-be thieves. Some parts of the country have used paint or company logos stamped into the materials to deter thieves.

    Technological solutions – Commissioning a study funded by DHS to develop innovative technologies to deter theft may be money well-spent. Here is an example from the United Kingdom that shows promise. CE Electric (UK) is now using Smartwater to code copper

    in its substations. Each batch of the liquid, which is odorless and colorless, has a unique

    chemical formula so the rightful owner of property can be identified. (For further info see

    the article from 30 October).

    Response Measures;

    Rapid reporting – This is critical to provide any chance for law enforcement to recover the materials and prosecute the criminals. The ISACs provide a great mechanism for industry situational awareness, but local law enforcement mechanisms are also required. There are some great examples throughout the country worth highlighting, one is listed below;

    Wisconsin: Scrap yards hope to stop theft; Electronic system proposed to

    combat. Trying to curb what's been called a "miserable epidemic" of scrap metal

    theft, Wisconsin recyclers have proposed what could be one of the nation's first

    statewide theft alert systems. Nothing has been finalized. But recycling

    companies have proposed using the Internet, or dedicated computer terminals, to

    record scrap metal purchases and report the data to law enforcement agencies.

    The system also could alert recyclers when large amounts of stolen material might

    be headed their way. "This would be one of the most comprehensive programs I

    am aware of," said Scott Horne, vice president of government affairs for the

    Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a Washington, D.C., trade association. It's

    a first step toward ending the practice of using scrap yards as unwitting fences for

    stolen goods (For further info, see the 28 March article below).



    Forming Task Forces to enhance efforts. An example of this is listed below;

    Massachusetts: In September, 2006 the Police departments North of Boston

    formed a Metal Thefts Task Force to coordinate the law enforcement response.

    (For more info see the articles from 22 October and 25 September).Scrap yard cooperation. Requiring identification at the point of turn-in is the best opportunity to provide law enforcement tips and leads.

    Virginia: Sheriff's Office Works To Limit Copper Thefts. The sheriff's office

    announced that it will conduct an educational program to inform business that

    deal with the salvage of copper, aluminum and other metals about commerce and

    trade regulations (See article from 24 October).

    Improved laws and regulations to handle prosecutions. Using existing laws where

    appropriate, and passing new laws where required, will assist the law enforcement in effectively removing criminals off the street. Below is an example that the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) in Washington State has used to successfully prosecute criminals stealing from power plants and transmission lines.

    Washington: 18 U.S.C. 1361 and 18 U.S.C. 1366 wherein Section 1361 protects

    "any property" of the United States or agency or department thereof from willful

    injury or depredation, while Section 1366 provides Federal protection to all types

    of energy production, transmission, and distribution facilities, including electrical

    transmission lines. Penalties for violations of 18 U.S.C. 1361 and 18 U.S.C. 1366

    range from fines up to $250,000 and/or twenty years imprisonment to

    imprisonment up to five years, and/or a fine of up to $250,000.

    Copper Scrap USA Processor Scale/RetailLess Than Truckload Qty's USD/LB FOB - Delivered ProcessorFormulas updated on 8/1/2006

    MetalpriceCOMELow High CommoditysLowHighAvgAvg %*X CU*%*%*Formula

    -.900 to Bare Bright3.490 2.590 74.2 3.175 91.0 2.882 82.6-.315

    -1.100 to #1 Burnt Wire3.490 2.390 68.5 2.975 85.2 2.682 76.9-.515

    -1.100 to #1 Solids3.490 2.390 68.5 2.975 85.2 2.682 76.9-.515

    #2 Birch / -1.515 to 3.490 1.975 56.6 2.675 76.6 2.325 66.6Cliff-.815

    *Based on COMEX December contract from 8/21/2006.



(Source -



    Example of Protective Measures taken by industry;Sep 2006 -Dallas, Texas: TXU Electric Delivery takes

    action to prevent copper wire theft

    In the last 12 months, copper prices have more than doubled and so have the

    number of copper thefts, resulting in increases in reported phone outages,

    power outages and construction costs.

    TXU Electric Delivery is no exception when it comes to experiencing wire theft.

    In 2005, TXU Electric Delivery lost $633,000 to copper theft, excluding

    costs associated with outages caused by the crime.

    To help combat this trend, TXU Electric Delivery has partnered with local police

    and area scrap yards to help identify stolen copper wire and apprehend


    This is a nationwide problem and TXU Electric Delivery is taking several

    measures to address this issue:

    Replacing stolen copper with copper weld. Copper weld is steel

    wire that is covered with copper. This material has the same

    electrical properties as copper but usually not valuable to scrap


    Clearing foliage and increasing security lighting in and around


    Upgrading/installing security systems and perimeter fences.

    Securing equipment, materials, scrap bins, and vehicles that

    must remain inside these facilities.

    When necessary, hiring law enforcement officials for added




(Source -



    Chronological list of incidents and issues;

    03 Dec 06 – Montana: Rail Copper Wire Thefts. Montana Rail Link has been

    experiencing a very high incident rate of theft relating to copper wire over the past few months. We have had a contractor taking out an old communication code line and while doing this, over about 6 weeks, thieves took about 5 miles of solid copper wire, #8. This

    would amount to more than 3,500 pounds. Most of the wire had been cut wire so it

    would be easy to load and haul away. Clean used copper wire is going for around $1.80 a pound out here, pretty valuable. Recently however, we have had thefts of similar wire

    from active, low volt lines so there is minimal risk if you cut the correct wire. These thefts are usually 1,000 to 2,000 feet at a time, or 150 - 250 pounds. The thieves are

    cutting the wire between poles getting 100' at a cut.

    Because it is hunting season out here, trespassers on the railroad right of way are plentiful. I have no suspects to date and have not been able to find any location where the wire is being sold. Have checked with as many recycling places between Missoula and Seattle as possible selling sites with no luck to date. I did hear that the BNSF has been having like thefts of solid copper wire in the Dakotas and the wire may be going to Chicago, but I have not been able to confirm this information yet. We did apprehend 4 people in 2 separate incidents near Bozeman stealing wire during this time, turned out they were Meth addicts looking for quick cash. No connection from these to the other thefts however. The problem of catching the crooks in the act is these particular lines have battery back up, so when the wire is cut, it does not alert our dispatch center until the batteries wear down, anywhere from 48-72 hours later. Too late for an immediate response. If you hear anything along this type of crime, please let me know. With that much wire, it has to be going some where and #8 or #9 solid copper wire is a bit unusual.(Source: Pete Lawrenson - Montana Rail Link - Chief of Security - 406-370-3168)26 Nov 06 –Pennsylvania: With the price of copper up, the plumbing can go missing.



    Jeff Swensen for The New York Times

    (Caption - Mike Roscoe owns two side-by-side rental houses in Pittsburgh that were stripped by thieves of the copper elements of their plumbing. The Pittsburgh police say about 250 such thefts have been reported in the last year).

    When Mike Roscoe first saw water running along the gangway between his two row houses, he thought he was dealing with a leaking pipe, not the impact of global economic forces.

    After all, why would thieves — midnight plumbers as the police call them — tear out the floorboards, toilets, even the walls of the homes, all in search of copper tubing? “To go through this effort? I don’t get it,” said Mr. Roscoe, 39, a truck driver and fledgling landlord who discovered the damage Monday when he arrived to do some work to help get his two attached, red-brick houses in the Allentown neighborhood ready to rent. “You could make more money getting a job at minimum wage.”

    Not necessarily. In the last year, a worldwide surge in demand for copper, largely from construction booms in China and India, has pushed up its value. Though the market price has slipped, it is still more than double what it was just over a year ago. Scrap metal dealers in Pittsburgh said they were paying about $2 a pound for No. 2 copper, which by definition has been bent or soldered, more than triple the 65 cents they paid a year ago. That kind of payout makes a copper haul like the approximately 20 pounds taken out of Mr. Roscoe’s row houses worth about eight hours of work at minimum wage ($5.15 an hour).

    Though the news media has reported thefts of copper wire from streetlights, electrical

    substations and cellphone towers across the country, most of it is taken from abandoned

    homes or homes under construction, usually by drug addicts looking for quick cash. The

    theft from Mr. Roscoe’s houses was among eight similar thefts in Pittsburgh over a few



    days this month. About 250 such thefts have been reported in the last year, compared with perhaps a dozen last year, the police said.

    “It’s a problem, a big one,” said Sgt. Kevin Gasiorowski, who supervises the city’s burglary squad. “It’s not going to go away till the price goes down.”

    The surge in thefts has sent scrap metal dealers scrambling to proclaim that they are doing everything they can to catch people trying to sell them stolen copper.“The industry takes this very seriously,” said Bryan McGannon, a spokesman for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, an association in Washington of more than 1,400 dealers who own more than 3,000 scrap yards. “But scrap dealers have a difficult

    situation on their hands: legitimate scrap material and stolen material looks identical.”

    The institute has joined with the National Crime Prevention Council to spread information about specific thefts in a campaign that will use the famous McGruff the Crime Dog logo.

    The institute also put out a list of what it calls recommended practices for scrap dealers in an effort to thwart thieves and help the police. The suggestions include videotaping all transactions and requiring identification from people selling scrap metal. Though Pittsburgh has had an ordinance on its books for decades requiring scrap dealers to get copies of identification of everyone they buy from and forward them to the police after each transaction, enforcement did not start until this year.

    “I don’t know if it’s stopped them, but I have a lot fewer customers off the street now,” said John Sambol, manager of Northside Scrap Metals. The exchange of information has led to several arrests, the police say, but most scrap recyclers outside the city do not have the same requirements. Sergeant Gasiorowski said that although scrap dealers say they do not buy suspicious copper, “the stuff is going somewhere.” (Source -

    26 Nov 06 – Mississippi: Reward Offered for info on Copper Wire Theft. Mississippi

    Power and the Hattiesburg Police Department are looking for the thieves who stole more than 6,000 pounds of copper and aluminum wire from a substation. The materials, along with an 18 foot trailer, were discovered missing last Sunday morning. Investigators say those responsible broke into the gate around the substation to gain access to the wire. Because of the building boom since Katrina, the price of copper wiring has increased dramatically. Police are not saying how much the stolen copper is worth. A reward is being offered to anyone with information leading to the arrest of those responsible. If you have any information, call Crimestoppers at (601) 582-STOP, Hattiesburg Police at (601) 544-7800. (Source -

    24 Nov 06 – Texas: Houston Police Department defends crackdown on stolen copper; dealer irked. Police issue 70 citations; one scrap buyer calls it heavy-handedMany Houston scrap-metal dealers inspected during a crackdown on copper theft aren't complying with city regulations, investigators say.

    Police in recent weeks have inspected about 100 facilities that buy scrap material from the public, issuing at least 70 citations for violations such as failing to keep detailed customer records and operating without licenses.

    Such offenses, police say, make it harder to catch street-level crooks who steal copper wiring, plumbing or other metals to sell as scrap. "If we do not inspect the dealers, when


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