FBI: Copper thieves jeopardize US infrastructure

The FBI today ratcheted up the clamor to do something more substantive about the monumental growth of copper theft in the US.

In a report issued today the FBI said the rising theft of the metal is threatening the critical infrastructure by targeting electrical substations, cellular towers, telephone land lines, railroads, water wells, construction sites, and vacant homes for lucrative profits.

Copper thefts from these targets have increased since 2006; and they are currently disrupting the flow of electricity, telecommunications, transportation, water supply, heating, and security and emergency services, and present a risk to both public safety and national security.

The agency cites a number of scary examples:

  • In April 2008, five tornado warning sirens in the Jackson, Mississippi, area did not warn residents of an approaching tornado because copper thieves had stripped the sirens of copper wiring, thus rendering them inoperable.
  • On 20 March 2008, nearly 4,000 residents in Polk County, Florida, were left without power after copper wire was stripped from an active transformer at a Tampa Electric Company (TECO) power facility. Monetary losses to TECO were approximately $500,000.
  • As of March 2007, farmers in Pinal County, Arizona, were experiencing a copper theft epidemic as scrappers stripped copper from their water irrigation wells and pumps resulting in the loss of crops and high replacement costs. Pinal County's infrastructure loss due to copper theft was $10 million.
  • A of April 2008, highly organized theft rings specializing in copper theft from houses and warehouses were operating in Minneapolis, Minnesota. These rings or gangs hit several houses per day, yielding more than $20,000 in profits per month. The targets were most often foreclosed homes.
  • Reports in March 2008 indicate an organized copper theft ring used the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's foreclosure lists to pinpoint targets in Cleveland, Ohio. Perpetrators had 200 pounds of stolen copper in their van, road maps, and tools. Three additional perpetrators were found to be using the US Department of Housing and Urban Development's list of mortgage and bank foreclosures to target residences in Cleveland, South Euclid, Cleveland Heights, and other cities in Ohio.

    The FBI report shows that industry and local officials are taking countermeasures to help address the scrapper problem, but apparently much more needs to be done. For example, while a variety of physical and technological security measures have been taken there are limited resources available to enforce these laws, and a very small percentage of perpetrators are arrested and convicted. Additionally, as copper thefts are typically addressed as misdemeanors, those individuals convicted pay relatively low fines and serve short prison terms.

    On the plus side some states such as California, Missouri and Arizona now require scrap metal dealers to thumbprint sellers, pay them by check, keep stringent records and report transactions to police, according to an Ithicajournal.com story.  There is a federal bill that would mandate such background data on scrap dealers and a move to further involve the FBI in chasing down scrappers.

Copper theft is an epidemic crime across the nation and the world. Of course, not all criminals are the brightest bulbs; some have been killed or maimed pulling out live wires. Layer 8 reported last year that there was a growing movement by telecommunications vendors to offer rewards leading to the arrest of copper thieves. Since 2004, the price of copper has at times hit $4 a pound as demand grew in China, India and Brazil, experts say.  

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