Lifting heavy metal

As the price of metals rises to a spike, their theft can puncture the public's safety

     Two characters in black ski masks drive up to a building under construction. What is the object of their affection? The massive crane? The goliath bulldozer? A collection of hammers left behind? None of the above — these two are after metal. Not the kind blasting from radios, but copper and brass piping, aluminum siding and gutters, even storm sewer grates and manhole covers are worth a few extra bucks at a scrap yard.

     With the economy weary, thieves begin to focus less on lifting television, and instead direct efforts toward whatever they can get their hands on — this is nothing new.

     Taking material theft to an extreme, some instances include the theft of speaker wiring once part of a Mississippi tornado warning system and the disappearance of a Florida-based AM radio station's copper transmitter wiring. The thefts rendered the station off-air for two days, thus causing a loss of thousands of advertising dollars and greatly multiplying the hazard of a threatening Mississippi twister.

     These cases show the clear threat that material theft causes the public and its pocketbooks; the removal of a city's manhole cover poses an equal danger to personal safety and public dollars.

Opening the issue

     In many instances, it can be difficult for the scrap dealer to detect whether or not an item is stolen. Malleable metals can be manipulated into different forms, making them nearly unrecognizable from their original state. In addition, heavier items like a manhole cover or storm grating can be broken with a sledge hammer.

     "[Criminals] will go out of their way to torch, burn or strip it, so that it is not easily identifiable; and that makes it doubly hard for our employees to know whether something's legit or suspicious and questionable to ownership," says Bruce Savage, vice president of communications at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI).

     While the increasing demand of these metals raises the commodity's resale value — copper has approached $4 per pound twice since 2005; it remains between $3.30 to $3.50 per pound — the resale of a manhole cover holds itself unique. According to Sgt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee (Georgia) Sheriff's Office, "Although these suspects get approximately $15 for one manhole cover, the cost to replace that cover can be as much as $200 to $250."

     Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is one area that has seen a spike in manhole cover thefts. "From what I've been told, this is being seen nationwide," says Lt. Frank Vanore of the Philadelphia Police Department. A cover's theft leaves a hole in the street or curb not always easily visible, which can pose a serious risk to vehicles or the unsuspecting person — a fall could send a pedestrian 6 or more feet below.

     Though a cover can weigh hundreds of pounds, Philadelphia has found anywhere from 16 to 60 participating criminals willing and able to steal them. One claim, Vanore mentions, reported 10 covers missing from a small area, costing more than $1,000 in losses.

     In addition, the cover also offers a first line of defense in preventing access to a city's underground sewer system. Without this protection in place, terrorists have ready access to potentially hundreds of miles underneath a city. While this access may be rare, the potential is real.

Covering the gap

     To combat this theft, Vanore explains Philadelphia has implemented intelligent-led policing with crime maps to detect transit patterns.

     "We've overlaid those maps with maps of the locations of city scrap dealers and scrap yards. When the maps come up, you see where the concentrated thefts are, and almost always there's a correlation with where the dealers are located," he says.

     However, according to ISRI, stolen metal thieves also cross state lines to avoid detection.

     "We've seen many indications … that material will move as much as 150 miles away from where it was stolen to a scrap yard," says Chuck Carr, ISRI vice president of Member Services.

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