Lifting heavy metal

     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.

     Preventing the theft initially can be as simple as storing items inside or locking them up.

     "We need to secure these materials as much as possible because a lot of this material theft is what we call 'targets of opportunity,' " says Savage. "We need to encourage stakeholders to be aware of these materials, their value and to secure them as much as possible."

     However, those responsible can't simply attach a bicycle lock to the manhole cover.

     A number of companies provide locking devices that secure the inlet and manhole cover. Michigan-based Stabiloc retrofits current covers with a device that locks and unlocks the cover in less than a minute. "It's primarily a security device that is really designed to delay and deter bad guys from gaining access to ... unauthorized manholes," says Tom McClanaghan, CEO of Stabiloc.

     Georgia-based LockDown-LockDry designed a system that incorporates a lock (LockDown) with a stainless-steel pan (LockDry) to fit underneath and secure to the rim of the manhole cover. While the system is not primarily designed to deter the cover's theft, it does provide another level of security for underground systems and assets.

     However, according to Donnie Burros, LockDown-LockDry vice president and operation manager, "Terrorism isn't the initial issue; while the cost of the wire is not great, its theft could take down a building's electrical system." This, like a missing manhole cover or an unconnected tornado warning system, poses a serious threat to public health and safety.

     The idea that commonly comes to mind is to weld the cover shut. This method has been used many times to secure the underground during large events such as Super Bowls, Olympics, political conventions, etc. The downfall to this solution is the weld itself.

     According to McClanaghan, "It really doesn't work. You're at the mercy of the quality of the weld and, when it comes down to it, most of the infrastructure at hand is standard gray iron or ductile and neither of these materials are very well suited for welding." He also says that grinding them off can be very costly and causes the infrastructure to erode each time.

     Baker suggests officers investigating missing manhole covers keep an eye out while on patrol to ensure citizen safety. "Look for signs that a vehicle may contain stolen manhole covers — vehicles that have more than a couple of covers will sit very low to the ground," he adds.

Taking action

     In addition to the physical action of locking down and securing metals, there are more steps officers can take in combating material theft.

     In Georgia, Baker's department sees more copper theft than iron. The agency's efforts include regular visits to recycling centers from property detectives and log reviews to see who is bringing in scrap metal.

     About 20 years ago, ISRI created a successful campaign dubbed "ISRI FaxNet." This network sent a fax to ISRI scrap metal dealers alerting them to the latest material theft. Due to the spike in metal prices and material theft increase, the institute dusted off this network in the summer of 2006 and relaunched it as the "Theft Alert System," utilizing up-to-date technologies: the Internet and e-mail.

     This network creates and sends an e-mail not only to the state where the theft occurred, but in all surrounding states, whenever a material theft report is filed and reported to the ISRI system.

     "The problem is that it continued to build and grow, to be a more difficult problem for more communities," says Carr. "Now we're getting theft alerts from so many different places that my staff can't keep up with the e-mails."

     Additionally, in November 2006, the Macon-Middle Georgia Metal Theft Committee brought together scrap processors, energy and utility companies, homeowners associations, law enforcement officers and prosecutors. The committee conducts a formal meeting every six weeks to discuss issues. For example, scrap yards host training sessions with both the victims groups and police to allow them to experience the scrap yard environment, identify what to look for and convey ideas on how parties can help, says Carr. Likewise, law enforcement helps train employees to locate suspicious material.

     According to the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC), since the committee's inception, Macon, Georgia, has experienced a dramatic drop in scrap metal thefts — with a peak high of 84 incidents falling to eight after almost a full year (December 2006 to November 2007).

     ISRI also coordinates a partnership with the NCPC and published "Recommended Practices and Procedures for Minimizing the Risks of Purchasing Stolen Scrap Materials." Written directly for the institute's scrap-dealer members, this report explains effective techniques for combating this crime. Topics include outreach, identifying a seller, tracking a transaction — financially and with video — prohibited materials and training. This paper and additional resources can be found at

Engaging communication

     Bringing this communication to the Internet-age, ISRI is developing a geographically based Web site to automatically create an alert to scrap yards within a 200-mile radius of the reported theft.

     Recently held within the Walt Disney World Resort on September 23 to 24, the National Metal Theft Investigations Seminar covered "material theft as a global problem." Attendees included investigators, corporate security, utility companies, deputy sheriffs and other law enforcement officers. Topics ranged from the impact of metal theft, court rulings, ordinances, recyclers inspections and more.

     As material theft can affect utilities, businesses and civilians alike, Baker suggests law enforcement initiate communication about material theft with the community.

     He also advises that "officers communicate with residents, make them aware of the problem and instruct them on what to do if they encounter suspicious activity."

     Editor's Note: ISRI's Theft Alert System can be contacted at and once available, the Web site can be found at