SPECIAL REPORT: Copper Theft Is On the Rise
SAM Magazine--March 26, 2012
By John T. Murphy,
Wells Fargo Special Risks
When the price of scrap copper went up and the economy went down, thieves across the country began stealing copper from many different businesses, including ski areas. Construction sites, utility companies, even private homes-nobody is exempt from these thefts.
A rising number of resorts have discovered, often just before opening for the winter, that anything made of copper has been cut and removed in the off season, and the culprits are long gone.
But thefts can occur at any time. A recent theft at a New England ski area involved cable that was coiled on the carriage of portable snow guns. The thieves simply cut the cable at the machine housing, and walked off with up to 200 feet of cable from each machine. To add insult to injury, each cable had an electrical connector on the feed end that cost hundreds of dollars per connector.
Claims specialist MaryJo Lovell from Wells Fargo Special Risks had three ski areas submit claims in 2011 for stolen buried copper cable. "The thieves hit one ski area twice," said Lovell. "The suspects were found because they left identifying information behind at the site. An employee who resides at the area spotted something unusual and discovered the theft and the evidence." The thieves are currently incarcerated, and attempts are being made to seek restitution.
Copper theft losses at ski resorts range from ground straps on lift towers disappearing to copper pipes from air conditioning units and water lines to two inch-diameter buried cable. Spools of copper wire in maintenance buildings are prime targets.
The incentive for thievery: scrap yards are paying $3 to $4 a pound for bare copper, and the prospect of quick money is tempting. Police are making headway in prosecuting these thefts, and an increasing number of copper "prospectors" are ending up in jail instead of going to the bank. Unfortunately, the time and expense of replacing stolen copper far exceeds the scrap market price.
Scrap yard operators are facing more stringent requirements in some locations. In some states, anyone who attempts to sell recycled metal to a scrap yard must present valid identification. Other jurisdictions are mandating that scrap yards be operated and licensed similar to pawn shops, with a detailed record of each transaction, with all information on a transaction available to police investigators.
Dylan West from Willis MountainGuard Insurance has addressed the problem directly with experts in the scrap industry, and says that the industry is cooperating. "The Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), has taken action to assist the police in apprehending thieves who try to sell stolen copper to scrap yards," he says.
The ISRI website addresses the issue with this position statement: "The most effective way to address the problem of metal theft is through a comprehensive strategy focusing first on efforts to prevent metal theft to the maximum extent practicable, and second, on assisting law enforcement and prosecutors in their efforts to catch, prosecute, and penalize those who perpetrate these thefts to the extent necessary to dissuade their colleagues from a similar path." The Institute also sponsors a periodic newsletter to law enforcement officials called "BOLO" (Be On The Look Out) that lists occurrences, arrests, and success stories.
To help prevent theft and to assist in material recovery and prosecution, some manufacturers are now placing identification markings on copper products. Electrical cable manufacturers are starting to place traceable ID numbers on insulation. Loss control companies are offering RF microchips and microdots that can be placed on the surface of existing cable, and sealed in place with a clear coating. Small businesses and homeowners can go low-tech by marking wire and copper manually. Video surveillance has also been a deterrent, and some arrests have been made based on video evidence.
Unfortunately for would-be thieves, attempts to cut live power lines have made high voltage electricity the judge, jury, and the executioner in several fatal attempts to steal copper from electrical sub-stations.
Ski area operators are urged to remove the temptation. Bob Switzgable, owner and operator of Ski Sundown, Conn., doesn't take any chances. "As soon as the season is over, we take all the copper cable and lock it up," he says.
Ski area operators can help prevent thefts at their properties with some common-sense deterrents:
- Remove all portable copper cable at the end of the ski season and store it in a secure location.
- Tag electrical cables and exposed copper and brass with identifiable markings. This will not only assist law enforcement with locating the criminals, but it may also help the ski area recover damages from scrap yards that have purchased stolen material.
- For resorts that are only open in the winter, ask local police to pay extra attention to the property in the off season.
- Regularly inspect non-removable, recyclable metal items throughout the resort to determine if any is damaged or missing.
- Make it as difficult as possible for thieves to drive vehicles onto the property. (Be sure that police and fire departments still have ready access.)
- Maintain a 24/7 monitored security system with video surveillance.
- If you do discover a theft, report it to the police immediately. Police can send out an alert on www.scraptheftalert.com which is sponsored by ISRI.
For more information on prevention, contact your local law enforcement agency. Helpful information is also available on the Programs and Services page at www.isri.org. \