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
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
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
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.