Scrap metal thefts on the riseClick to Enlarge

In an attempt to crack down on metal thefts, scrap dealers in over half the states in the country are required by law to register with an online database established by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Inc. (ISRI). ISRI is a trade organization representing nearly 1,600 recyclers across the country., allows users to alert others of metal thefts in the United States and Canada. After review and validation of the submitted alert, an e-mail is sent to all subscribers of the database service, within a 100 mile radius of where the scrap metal theft occurred.

Gary Bush, the national law enforcement liaison and director of material theft prevention at ISRI, reported an increase in the number of metal thefts in 2011. As law enforcement agencies are not required to report to the ISRI database, however, Bush said the number of theft alerts is not necessarily representative of the total number of actual thefts.

Since went online in 2008, 5,915 alerts have been issued. There are currently 12,066 registered users, with 4,323 of those being law enforcement officers, Bush reported.

Approximately 3,000 alerts were issued by Scrap Theft Alert this year through October, compared to 1,557 alerts during the same time period last year. “This could be due to an actual increase in metal thefts or an increase in people using the system, or both,” Bush said. The number of alerts from January 1 through November 14 was 3,161. By contrast, the number of alerts issued January 1 through November 14, 2010 was 1,687.

Irwin Sheinbein is president of American Metals Co Inc., in Mesa, Arizona. He commented on how scrap theft has been handled in his area. “Arizona was probably one of the first states to adopt some of the more stringent laws involving the tracking of stolen scrap. In the early 1990s, a Phoenix police detective wanted to rid the city of metal theft. As his practices would often be too extreme for businesses to accommodate, legislation was established that was more practical but also effective.

“In 2007, when the metal market was beginning to rise and a new rash of metal thefts occurred here and across the country, local police departments and utilities got together and decided they needed to update the legislation already on the books. In that exercise, they ultimately used input from a group of scrap dealers – I was one of them – and a lobbying firm that assisted us.”

Sheinbein said that as a result of that legislation, scrap dealers are “obligated to track the sale of nonferrous material worth over $25 in value, and in doing so, they record the driver’s license number and license plate number of the seller’s vehicle, the fingerprint and signature of the seller, verifying all info as it is added to a computerized system, and we take a photo of the seller and the goods being sold. In addition, if the material from the seller is over $100 in value, we have to hold the material in its original form, for seven days, and if the material value is over $300, we have to pay by check and mail the payment to the seller,” Sheinbein stated.

These practices have been adopted in many other states. In Kentucky – it’s a 20 day hold versus a 7 day hold, for material worth over $100. These processes impact cash flow and physical space for the scrap yard buying the material. “This can be a challenge. The ‘powers that be’ don’t always take those issues into consideration when new legislation is put in place. Another challenge is maintaining the software that is used to track all of this activity – not just processing activity, but archiving the information as well. This legislation is statewide and municipalities are supposed to follow suit,” said Sheinbein. The Department of Public Safety is supposed to maintain a website that can be used by law enforcement agencies to access info and check on suspect material. However, for the last 18 months, this website has not been functioning properly. So, in lieu of that, police must inquire directly when a theft has been reported.

Sheinbein noted, “I think the theft rate for scrap has actually declined in this area, compared to 2010. Although the theft rate is affected by price, that is not always the cause for a spike. Some cases of theft are obviously well-organized – especially the large scale examples. Most small scale isolated incidents are clearly carried out by desperate individuals who just need cash fast. Some recent cases in this area involved the theft of copper wire from freeway and park lights. I am in favor of the new laws that are in place, but as they vary state-to-state – that aspect is not helpful because thieves can steal here and then sell in neighboring states and or in Mexico.”

One Phoenix-area business discourages thieves by placing a manufacturer identification on their metal products as they are made. “Also, utilities now impregnate their wire with a mark that can only be seen with an ultraviolet light, so that is another way to help identify stolen scrap. Someone recently ripped out copper tubing from a fire protection system and by the time the damage was detected, the resulting water damage amounted to $250,000. The thieves likely only got a few hundred dollars for that material. Unless prosecutors are willing to actively prosecute and the courts are willing and able to convict these thieves, this trend will not slow down much. This problem is certainly on-going,” concluded Sheinbein.

D. Michael Collins, a member of city council in Toledo, Ohio hopes to help stem a rash of catalytic converter theft in the area. “I was contacted by an auto transmission repair shop owner, who experienced frequent catalytic converter thefts at his business. He requested help from the city with the matter and the police department confirmed to me that there was a growing citywide problem with these thefts. I discussed the problem with our city law director, to plan legislation to help with the issue. We hope to amend existing language regarding these matters to also include a restriction on the sale of catalytic converters. Then, when one purchases the item, proper identification and documentation must be presented to prove who the seller was.”

A system is already in place in most states to help track the buying and selling of scrap metal. This amendment to that system includes a requirement that when a catalytic converter is resold, it must be inscribed with the VIN number of the car from which it came. The VIN number can be inscribed by the vehicle owner or a service technician that’s involved. If a converter is resold and that number has been defaced, that will serve as an indicator that the convertor may be stolen. “We’re moving this amendment through the proper committee and council channels, so there’s an opportunity for any modifications that may be needed, and we should be able to vote on the action and establish the amendment reasonably soon,” Collins said.

In Great Neck, New York, Paul Glantz is president of the ferrous and nonferrous processor, Glantz Iron & Metals Inc. Glantz said, “Scrap metal theft is not hurting our business. There have not been any theft problems for at least 12 years – since we trained our supervisors. To help reduce metal theft, perhaps municipalities should consider publishing a ‘fence list’ similar to how some cities publish a ‘John list’ of those who use prostitutes. Embarrassing those entities is a good start. I would hope that such a list would be a wake up call to those processors, as their behavior is bad for the community and them as well.”