APRIL 2011

New regulations combat increased metal theft

On Valentine’s Day, TV news reported that drainage grates were disappearing from the streets and parking lots in Clifton, New Jersey. Bronze plaques were also pried off war memorials. Gaps in the pavement created dangerous pedestrian hazards and the desecration of the memorials was heartbreaking for the community. Police attributed it to metal thieves and suggested that the culprits may be methamphetamine addicts looking to pay for a quick fix. Law enforcement experts believe that the majority of the thefts are crimes of opportunity rather than anything organized.

In a tough economy, however, and with the rising prices of scrap metals, random crimes of opportunity are aggravating the metal theft situation.

Unfortunately, increased metal thefts are happening at a time when state and municipal budgets are being stretched to pay for essential services. It also comes when hiring freezes and cuts in law enforcement are being imposed. The reality is that in many jurisdictions, more serious crimes take higher priority.

Gary Bush, the national law enforcement liaison director of material theft prevention at Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), spent 33 years in Florida law enforcement as a patrol officer, sergeant and field training supervisor.

In his last years in Florida, he was a metal theft investigator. In October, 2008 Bush joined ISRI. Today he oversees ScrapTheftAlert.com, ISRI’s web-based system that helps members and law enforcement catch thieves, recover materials and return them to the rightful owner.

“I handle most of the day to day operations for the system for the United States and Canada, approving alerts issued by recyclers and other stakeholders, vetting new officers into the system, and providing guidance to those using it. I’ve also developed an outreach plan, conducting workshops to help law enforcement and recyclers learn how we can help each other in combating metal theft.”

ScrapTheftAlert.com was established in mid-December 2008 as a modern version of ISRI’s original Fax Net System that dates back to the late 1970s.

“Today, the economy is struggling, people are out of work, and many are desperate. Many see metal theft as a way of turning a fast buck,” said Bush.

Here is how ScrapTheftAlert.com works: By registering at the website, a user can post alerts to the scrap industry of thefts of materials in the United States and Canada. Upon a validation and review of the post, an alert is sent by email to all subscribers within a 100-mile radius of where the incident occurred. The system is zip-code based, so depending on the circumstance, the radius can be increased. An alert arrives in the recipient’s mailbox in minutes.

Besides descriptions of material stolen and the perpetrators, users can also upload up to four photos as evidence with each posting. For law enforcement, it can also be a research tool where all theft reports can be searched by zip-code, state or province for up to 14 days.

Since ScrapTheftAlert.com was established, nearly 10,000 recyclers and members of law enforcement have registered. Over the last two years, over 3,200 theft alerts have been issued.

“To date, 2881 law enforcement officers have signed up representing hundreds of jurisdictions. Florida has the most law enforcement officers with 316. Michigan has issued the most alerts with 363,” said Bush.

Danielle F. Waterfield, Esq., ISRI’s assistant counsel and director of government relations, commented on the Michigan alerts. “It’s no coincidence that Michigan enacted a law about two years ago that required the use of ScrapTheftAlert.com.

“Any recycler will tell you that the faster an alert is issued the better the chance of recovery because thieves usually sell materials quickly,” said Bush. “Before ScrapTheftAlert.com, an officer investigating a metal theft would either have to make a dozen phone calls to local recyclers, or drive to all of them. As a former metal theft investigator, I had to do that on many occasions. ScrapTheftAlert.com can reach a larger base much faster than an officer making phone calls. An officer registered with us with a mobile data terminal (MDT) and internet access can actually be on-scene at a metal theft and issue an alert from the patrol car.”

No one knows or reports the actual number of metal thefts that occur each year. Many go unreported. Many are reported in local newspaper police blotters, but these individual stories are usually deemed too insignificant for major media outlets. Yet each year these thefts cause hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars in infrastructure losses. State lawmakers are hearing the message loud and clear.

Thefts are happening at farms where irrigation systems are vanishing, at commercial and industrial sites and at homes across the country. It has been reported that thieves are using lists of foreclosed homes as virtual shopping lists. A work crew arriving at a foreclosed house in a heavily foreclosed neighborhood draws little attention. A few hundred dollars worth of scrap wire or pipe torn out of a house could cost many thousands to repair, or render the structure virtually worthless in today’s real estate market.

“If you go by the numbers of ScrapTheftAlert.com, the number of thefts are definitely on the rise over the last two years, but keep in mind that not every metal theft in the country is reported to us, only those reported by people who are registered,” said Bush.

Copper is a prime target of looting because it is widely deployed and that is where the money is. Over the past year prices for copper shot up from approximately $3.25 to over $4.50 per pound on the COMEX exchange. Rising prices have accelerated thievery from electric utilities and telecoms, causing numerous outages. The proliferation of cell towers, usually located in remote areas and heavy with transmitters and cabling, have also fallen victim.

Many gas and electric utilities, and telecommunications companies have stepped up their anti-theft programs, establishing hotlines, upping rewards for reporting crimes and increasing electronic and human surveillance, not just to protect valuable assets and avoid the enormous costs for replacements, but more vitally to ensure system reliability.

One of the most proactive states is Georgia. There, through a cooperative effort, gas and electric utilities are offering a whopping $3000 reward to anyone reporting metal thefts to a statewide hotline. The coalition includes Dalton Utilities, Electric Cities of Georgia, Georgia EMC (a group of 42 electric cooperatives), Georgia Power, Georgia Transmission Corporation and the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia.

The reward will be paid to anyone who furnishes information that leads directly to the arrest and conviction of someone involved in metals theft from a utility property in Georgia. The program asks the public to gather information on suspects such as a physical description of a person or car and get license plate numbers. There is legislation under consideration in Georgia that would require convicted metal thieves to be registered before release from prison and require law enforcement to keep a list of metal thieves, by county.

“We recognize exactly what Georgia did. ISRI is working with states and utilities to be part of the solution by helping establish more collaborative coalitions like the one in Georgia,” said Waterfield. “We also want recyclers to know what to look for in proprietary material that a utility uses so it can be identified.”

Well organized efforts by local and regional stakeholders appear to be the most effective anti theft programs. One of the most notable is the Macon–Middle Georgia Metal Theft Committee. This regional cooperative of many entities affected by metal theft crimes in central Georgia includes recyclers, law enforcement, commercial and industrial businesses, gas and electric utilities, telecoms and railroads. “They had so much success that they lowered their metal thefts by nearly 90 percent in 3 months and they are still maintaining that. Other coalitions like Macon are happening in other states around the county. We need more of them,” Bush noted.

Danielle Waterfield gave a legal overview: “According to the numbers we are tracking for this legislative session, there are a total of 81 proposed metal theft bills throughout the United States. Of the 50 states, 48 have some form of metal theft legislation already on the books. They vary by state. A common thread in all is some form of record keeping requirement for scrap dealers, which ISRI suggests in the ISRI Practices and Procedures for Minimizing the Risks of Purchasing Stolen Materials. There are other factors that vary in each state such as requiring photographs, fingerprints and the type of recordkeeping. It all depends on the jurisdiction.

“ISRI members have no problem keeping records and having open-door policies for law enforcement to come in when there is probable cause for an investigation. ISRI members find that regulations start going overboard, however, when the laws start requiring factors that are not effective in catching the thieves. One example is mandatory electronic reporting. We do not see any evidence that daily data dumps of transactions actually helps catch and successfully prosecute criminals.

“We believe the ScrapTheftAlert.com system is more effective. Recyclers can help law enforcement at the gate if they know they are looking for a particular material. They won’t know what they are looking for unless the property owner reports it as stolen and law enforcement gets that report out to recyclers. That is a more active and proven way, not only to recover the stolen material, but to catch the thief.”

Waterfield continued, “We have not seen any evidence where the successful prosecution of a thief is directly linked to information gathered from daily data dumps to a computer database, and it is a burden, especially on smaller recycling companies that don’t have sophisticated computer systems. A lot of legislation is misdirected and includes components that don’t help with the prosecution of the thieves. We support increased penalties on the thieves. If the theft of materials is a felony, for example, the thief is more likely to be prosecuted.

“One of the things ISRI has pushed for is that laws recognize the value of the damage to the property caused by the theft, not just the value of what was stolen, and to have the thief be fully accountable for the damage caused. Most laws are not written that way. However, that is starting to change.”

Waterfield’s point is illustrated by the fact that a small amount of copper ripped out of an electrical substation, or from a cell tower could cost the owners many thousands of dollars in repairs, plus revenue losses from service outages.

When asked about catching and prosecuting thieves, Bush said that it’s like any other criminal case. “Some are harder to prove than others. Generally, most law enforcement agencies lump metal thefts in with property crimes. All law enforcement agencies track crimes and most metal thefts are categorized as property crimes, however, there are a few agencies that track metal thefts separately. Penalties for metal theft vary by state, the type of property and the value of the property. As an example, in Florida, if it’s under $300 dollars it’s a petit theft which is a misdemeanor. Anything over $300 dollars is a grand theft which is a third-degree felony and then depending on the property and its value, penalties go up from there.”

Most reputable scrap metal dealers and processors recognize the telltale signs of stolen metal and thieves and work with law enforcement. It is challenging, however, since illegal scrap can enter the stream at many different portals and is often mixed in with other materials. Also, there is not enough focus on prevention by property owners. “In the majority of cases when property is left unprotected that is when theft occurs,” Bush concluded.

At www.isri.org/theft, there is a wealth of detailed information on metal theft prevention including Recommended Practices and Procedures for Minimizing the Risks of Purchasing Stolen Materials.

The site offers an opportunity for all stakeholders to register for ScrapTheftAlert.com, and where law enforcement can subscribe to receive BOLO News, an e-mail newsletter that shares success stories, working strategies and other issues pertinent to the fight against metal theft.