The latest craze? High-voltage fences promise to zap would-be copper thieves

Frying-up copper thieves might be one answer to a massive copper theft problem

It may be a gimmick or maybe the ultimate answer, but a California city this week Ok'd a draft ordinance that would let businesses install 7,000 volt electric fences to protect sites from rampant copper thieves.   

As reported by the Sacramento CBS station, the reaction form one business owner to the ordinance says it all: "It'll be a little fun to watch one of these guys get electrocuted holding my fence trying to rob me."

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According to the story, the fence is designed to jolt the thief not knock him out.  Still: "It's a memorable experience," an electric fence manufacturer told CBS.

The electric fence idea is just one in a long line of attempts to slow the ever-growing theft of copper.  You may recall that last year Clearwater, Florida police announced a plan to target any vehicles carrying large loads of metal.  Called operation "Cold Steal," police say now require the person in possession of the metal must be able to account for where they got it. If they can't, they could be subject to arrest and the property seized.

"If you're toting a large load of metal or air conditioning parts in your vehicle and you're headed to a recycling center, you better be able to tell us how you got it and from where. We see too many people who cannot account for their metal cargo and that is no longer an acceptable excuse," said Clearwater Police who saw a 254% increase in metal thefts in 2011 from 2010 and a 480% increase from 2009.

Florida authorities have also taken to jailing are jailing unlicensed scrap-yard dealers in an attempt to curb metal theft.  According to the SunSentinel.com the number of registered scrap-yard dealers in Broward and Palm Beach counties has spiked 62% in three years.

The federal government even got in the copper protection game last year when the US Department of Energy and its Oak Ridge National Laboratory announced they had built a security system aimed at thwarting at least some of the copper thefts that plague utilities and other large facilities.

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Specifically, "ORNL, DOE, the utility and several subcontractors installed a comprehensive perimeter security system consisting of energy efficient lighting, surveillance cameras that operate in a high voltage environment and an anti-cut, anti-climb fence system with integral intrusion detection cable. The complete system protects a perimeter area of 3600 linear feet."

Other new efforts to curb the problem include:

  • MyNorthwest.com reports one town -- the City of Auburn - is using local community college welding students to sear shut about 4,000 conjunction boxes that have been a favorite copper theft target. The city says it has lost nearly $500,000 in the last few years to thieves stealing wire from street lights and traffic signals. According to the site, the students have welded more than 1,000 of the 4,000 boxes so far.
  • According to the Verde Independent, politicians in Arizona are looking into making new stricter laws around copper theft and sales of scrap metal. For example, there is a proposal that would require police to not only identify anyone who sells more than $15,000 worth of metal in any one year, but to actually make contact with each of them. Law makers are also looking at defining "an entirely new crime created in situations where the theft of metal has damaged public infrastructure, such as a phone system. The presumptive penalty for that would be five years in state prison, regardless of the value of the metal stolen."
  • The Associated Press reported in October that AT&T in Mississippi was offering a reward of up to $1,000 to solve incidents of copper theft from telephone cables. The reward is for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible. AT&T says the steady rise in the market price of copper in the last few years and the down economy has led some thieves to extreme measures, including stealing copper cables from facilities and telephone poles. The phone company says it's working with law enforcement agencies and scrap metal dealers in the county to solve cases.

But really the problem continues to be epidemic.   For the most recent example, the LA Times reported U.S. border enforcement agents and the Arizona Department of Public Safety said last week that an investigation into the September theft of copper from a mining facility in Hayden, Ariz., led to the recovery at the Port of Los Angeles of 144 tons of stolen copper ingots, worth $1.25 million, about to be shipped to China.

The Department of Energy's Office of Inspector General noted a couple big examples of theft last year including:

  • In New Mexico, one investigation found that up to 30,000 pounds of copper were stolen by Department contractor employees working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory's (LANL) Manufacturing Recycling Facility (MRF). The MRF is a fenced facility that is locked after hours and has access controls in place. Four individuals were convicted. In another investigation at LANL, a former contractor employee was found to be stealing spools of copper wire from a secure storage area after his employment was terminated. The person, who was subsequently convicted, had gained access to the site to commit the thefts by using an access badge he failed to turn in when his employment was terminated.
  • In Texas, hundreds of pounds of copper were stolen by multiple contractor employees from the Pantex Plant. This copper was scheduled to be recycled and was stored at a generally secured location. However, the gate to the actual storage site was unsecured because other contractor employees were performing work in the area. The investigation resulted in two convictions.

The DOE inspector general at the time said there are "practical, cost-effective steps that the Department can take to manage the risk posed by those attempting to pilfer copper inventory. These include:

(1) Sensitize the Federal and contractor workforce to the copper theft problem to ensure that: reasonable theft preventive steps are in place and are operating as intended; and, apparent thefts are reported to authorities promptly;

(2) Where areas of high vulnerability have been identified, encourage the implementation of enhanced inventory and access controls, and related safeguards, to minimize the opportunity for copper theft; and,

(3) Work with local and regional law enforcement to ensure that Department and contractor managers are aware of localized threats to copper inventories and that there is an effective level of communication between the parties to maximize crime prevention efforts.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8 and on Facebook

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