The new gold rush

Oct. 13, 2008

by Ivan Raconteur

One would not suggest that thieves in the past were in any way a clear-thinking bunch, but one thing we can say for certain is that thieves today have completely lost their minds.

They are going to bizarre levels to steal metal – all kinds of metal.

Substantial increases in the value of metals such as copper, aluminum, and steel, combined with tough economic times and, in some cases, drug use, have created an epidemic of metal theft around the world.

This new gold rush involves thieves pilfering metal that they can sell for scrap, and they don’t care what they have to do to get it.

They may not need to head for remote peaks or streams to pan for nuggets, but they are going into all sorts of other strange places to get metal that they can convert to cash.

Gold may be difficult to come by, but other metals are becoming valuable enough to be appealing to scoundrels.

The price of copper has jumped from about 67 cents per pound in 2002 to $3.50 per pound today.

Aluminum has nearly doubled from 65 cents per pound in 2004 to about $1.28 today.

A growing problem is the fact that thieves can cause hundreds or even thousands of dollars in damage while stealing just a few dollars worth of metal.

There seems to be no end to the list of things thieves will steal.

Bronze markers have been stolen from cemeteries and monuments. Copper rain gutters and downspouts have been stolen from churches.

In the Czech Republic, more than 1,000 bronze markers were stolen from a concentration camp cemetery.

In Germany, scoundrels dismantled and made off with three miles of railroad tracks, which cost about $250,000 to replace.

In Russia, one bold thief chopped up a small bridge and hauled it away.

Copper wire is a common target at construction sites.

Catalytic converters in vehicles are also sought by thieves, who covet the platinum they contain, which can sell for $1,900 per ounce.

Other targets are sections of aluminum bleachers from high school stadiums, guardrails, historical markers, and fire hydrants.

That is wonderful. We will have houses burning to the ground because firefighters will not be able to access hydrants.

Air conditioners are emerging as another popular target because of the copper coils they contain.

In South Carolina, thieves used a sledge hammer to destroy two air conditioners at a doctor’s office so they could get at the coils. The doctor estimated that the thieves got away with about $100 of metal, but the incident will end up costing the doctor about $1,200.

The housing crisis has opened up a whole new arena for thieves who break into houses and rip out walls so they can steal copper wiring and pipes, then they strip aluminum siding off of the houses as they leave.

In some cases, thieves have used foreclosure lists to map out which houses they would target.

Some thefts are carried out on a larger scale. In Boston, two state workers were arrested for the theft of 2,300 feet of historic metal trim from a bridge that was being repaired. The value of the trim was about $500,000.

Some Arizona streets were left in the dark after thieves stole eight miles of copper cable, which will cost taxpayers $250,000 to replace.

In Washington, villains climbed poles and stole 600 feet of copper cable from a historic trolley ride. As a result, the tourist attraction was closed for the season. A similar theft took place in Ohio.

Considering the effort it must take to pull off some of these crimes, it seems like it would be less work if the crooks would just go out and get jobs.

The way that these thefts are carried out brings up the issue of safety.

One is not too concerned about the bad guys. If a thief gets electrocuted while trying to steal wire from live power lines, we can put that down to natural selection.

But, what about the innocent people who may be hurt if they encounter wires or electrical equipment that has been damaged by would-be thieves?

What about the people who are left without power or telephone service when crooks damage these systems?

Another strange new trend, the theft of manhole covers, could result in injuries if people tumble down the exposed sewers or unknowingly try to drive over them.

Fortunately, many states have passed, or are considering new laws, to deal with the problem.

Some make it a crime to knowingly purchase stolen metal, and allow prosecutors to seek compensation to bring damaged property back to its original condition.

Some laws also require scrap dealers to pay by check and keep detailed records of transactions, including information about sellers.

Thumb prints may be required of buyers, and cash may not be available until three days after a purchase.

In many areas, the scrap metal industry has worked with law enforcement agencies to share information and create programs to deal with the crisis.

It may be that the best way to deal with these freaks with the insatiable metal fetish is to lock them up in a room lined with some nice metal bars for walls.