Scrap Metal Theft: Why It Matters

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With the rise of scrap metal prices over the past decade, thieves have gotten desperate — and their actions cause consequences for far more than just themselves. Consider a man in Arizona found in an abandoned commercial yard with burns covering 100 percent of his body — his attempt to steal copper from a transformer cut power to 1,400 customers. Or a group of men in New Jersey stealing a truck’s worth of catalytic converters, chased by police until a collision stopped them. Or a woman struck by a car in Florida because the copper wiring had been taken from the streetlights, rendering them inoperable and making it difficult for drivers to see pedestrians.

Thieves steal metal from electrical transformers and substations, communications facilities, the wiring in streetlights, and even manhole covers and grave markers. Then they try to sell it to metal recycling facilities, where they can often receive significant sums of money.

Not only does metal theft inconvenience communities and create hazards, it also costs municipalities and affected businesses a significant amount of money. According to Department of Energy estimates, metal theft costs — including lost revenue and damages related to the thefts — total $1 billion each year, and repairs often cost much more money than the value of the stolen property.

Tackling the Problem

Many laws already exist to try and prevent scrap metal theft, but these laws often do not solve the problem. Despite regulations directing scrap yards in numerous states to record specific information about anyone selling scrap metal, it can be difficult to spot thieves. Additionally, when businesses turn away stolen goods, a seller will usually seek out another place to sell the material.

To effectively combat the scrap metal theft problem, concerned parties must work together and focus on prevention and prosecution of metal theft. This means businesses and municipalities targeted for metal theft, law enforcement, and recycling centers need to collaborate, and in many places this has already begun happening successfully.

Law enforcement agencies, which have often faced budget restrictions in recent years, must frequently prioritize crimes that more directly impact people. Some law enforcement agencies, though, have realized their communities are being negatively affected by metal theft, both in terms of cost and safety, and as a result have formed special units to focus on these crimes.

To help law enforcement better understand the recycling industry and the difficulties it faces when trying to identify stolen metal, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), an organization that represents 1,600 recycling companies, many of which deal with scrap metal, tries to bring the two groups together. They orchestrate tours so law enforcement can see first-hand how these businesses operate. When police and business owners better understand each other, they can more successfully work together to catch and prosecute thieves.

Catching Perpetrators with Technology

For the past five years, ISRI has also run a website called ScrapTheftAlert.com, where law enforcement agencies and registered business users can log in and report metal thefts. Then other users of the site within 100 miles are notified of the incident, and they can contact law enforcement if they have relevant information. Thus far, the site has sent out more than 14,000 alerts leading to 200-plus arrests and recovered nearly $1.4 million worth of property.

What You Can Do

With the help of ISRI, stakeholders in the metal recycling industry have conducted special training sessions for law enforcement officers in many areas to prevent metal theft. The industry aims to raise awareness about the problem with the general public, too, by launching media campaigns that include advertisements, social media outreach and online resources. Just this month, ISRI launched StopMetalsTheft.org, a resource that provides tools and information for those on the frontlines combating this crime. Citizens are encouraged to look out for suspicious behavior and report potential thefts to law enforcement. Doing so can help keep communities safe, prevent costly repairs and reduce crime.

While the collaborative efforts to tackle metal theft have put a dent in crime rates in many regions, the high price of scrap metal means theft is still a significant problem. In addition to efforts by metal industry stakeholders, increased awareness about the issue will be necessary to help reduce these crimes in the future.

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