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Metal theft is "the theft of items for the value of their constituent metals". It usually increases when worldwide prices for scrap metal rise, as has happened dramatically due to rapid industrialization in India and China. Apart from precious metals like gold and silver, the metals most commonly stolen are non-ferrous metals such as copper, aluminium, brass, and bronze. However, even cast iron and steel are now being taken owing to prices as scrap. 
One defining characteristic of metal theft is the motivation. Whereas other items are generally stolen for their extrinsic value, items with metal are stolen for their intrinsic value as raw material or commodities. Theft often have negative consequences much higher than the metal value, for example destroying valuable statues, causing long power interruptions or disrupting railway traffic.
Motivations for theft
||The examples and perspective in this section may not include all significant viewpoints. (December 2011)|
|This section may be slanted towards recent events. (December 2011)|
Scrap metal has drastically increased in price over recent years. In 2001, [ferrous scrap] sold for $77 a ton, increasing to $300/ton by 2004. In 2008, it hit nearly $500/ton.
Some elected officials and law enforcement officials have concluded that many metal thefts are by drug addicts stealing metal in order to fund their addictions. Some officials believe that most of these drug-related metal thefts are caused by methamphetamine users, however, this varies by the location the metal is being stolen. A more likely explanation for the phenomena is the unusually high price of non-ferrous metals coupled with elevated levels of unemployment. Individuals turn to metal thievery to support themselves when more legitimate, or socially acceptable means of earning an income are not open to them. Regardless of the reason, developing nations are helping to increase the demand for scrap metal.
In the fourth quarter of 2008, however, world market prices for metals like copper, aluminium, and platinum dropped steeply. Although there is anecdotal evidence that this price decrease has led to fewer metal thefts, strong empirical research on the exact nature of relationship between commodity prices and metal thefts is still lacking. Some have argued that the "genie is out of the bottle" now and drops in commodity prices will not result in corresponding drops in thefts. In fact, it is possible that thefts may actually increase to compensate for the loss in value.
Metal theft by location
Metal theft in South Africa is rampant, with an estimated of R5 billion per annum lost due to the theft. The stolen metal ranges from copper cables, piping, bolts to manhole covers. The theft continuously disrupts and degrades services, such as the power supply provided by Eskom and the telecommunication services by Telkom. Eskom estimated that the theft has cost the company about R25 million per annum, with incidents increasing from 446 incidents in 2005; 1,059 in 2007 and 1,914 in 2008. The theft has cost Telkom R863 million (April 2007 - January 2008 period). Despite the minimal copper reserve South Africa has, as much as 3000 tonnes of copper leave Cape Town harbour every month. Aside from the economic impact, the theft also impacted people's lives, this includes the death of six children due to theft of manhole covers (2004-2008 figures).
In Australia, in 2008, 8 tonnes of copper wiring, believed to be stolen from a variety of locations including rail tracks, power stations and scrap metal depots, was destined for the Asian black market.
From July to September 2005, a gang of thieves in Brunei dismantled and stole parts from more than 60 power substations in that country, including copper earthing cables and aluminum doors. It is apparently being sold as scrap metal. The thefts are ongoing.
In Quebec, during May 2006, thieves stole sections of copper roofing, gutters and wiring from four Quebec city churches, two being St. Charles de Limoilou and St. Francois d'Assise. The thieves were discovered in action on their third night, whereupon they fled. High copper prices are believed to be the reason for the thefts. Repairs were expected to cost more than $40,000.
In October 2010, a 300 pound bronze bell was stolen in Shelburne County, Nova Scotia. Thieves removed the bell from a monument in Roseway Cemetery. The bell was part of the Roseway United Memorial Church, built in 1912, until it was demolished in 1993. It was recovered in a Halifax-area scrapyard October 6, 2010.
327 bronze markers stolen from Theresienstadt concentration camp cemetery in mid-April 2008, with 700 more stolen the next week. A scrap metal dealer was arrested on April 18, 2008. He intended to melt them down for their copper.
A ten-tonne footbridge and 200 meters of railway trackage, from the town of Slavkov in the Karlovy Vary Region was dismantled and removed by a gang of thieves who presented forged papers saying that the bridge had been condemned. The bridge was erected in 1901.
In 2001, thieves in Khabarovsk Krai stole electric and telephone lines leading to military bases there. A small bridge was stolen in Russia in 2007, when a man chopped up its 5-meter span and hauled it away.
In Ukraine, statues, wires, sewage hatches, and even a museum-exhibit steam locomotive have been stolen for sale as scrap. In February 2004, thieves in western Ukraine dismantled and stole an 11 m (36 ft) long, one-tonne steel bridge that spanned the river Svalyavka. In September 2009, smugglers attempted to make off with 25 tons of radioactive scrap metal from the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The Security Service of Ukraine caught them.
Significant rises in metal theft were observed during 2006-2007 in the UK, especially in North West England, where metal theft is still on the rise as of 2008. Police Review have said that metal theft is now the fastest growing crime in the UK (for 2008) with the annual damage to industry estimated at £360m.
In the UK, the British Metals Recycling Association is working with authorities such as the Association of Chief Police Officers and the British Transport Police to halt the problem of metal being stolen from its members' sites and to identify stolen materials. Also see Operation Tremor.
Roofs, manhole covers, statues etc. have all been increasingly targeted recently due to the rising cost of metal. Most of the time metal is sold for scrap but occasionally used by the thieves themselves. There have been many stories of metal theft; a bronze statue of former Olympic champion Steve Ovett disappeared from Preston Park in Brighton and church bells in Devon were stolen by thieves. A statue made by Henry Moore was stolen from a museum in 2006 and believed to have been melted down for scrap. Churches, especially older churches, suffer as 'lead theft' from church (and other) roofs is on the rise, although some police do not take it seriously. In late 2011 the police began a number of crackdowns on metal theft, the largest in South Yorkshire resulting in at least 22 arrests and the seizure of amateur smelting equipment. In August 2012, thieves stole 26 metal cages from an animal hospital in Kibworth, Leicestershire. Cages containing sick or injured animals were emptied by the thieves. The cages were worth about £30,000. Theft of copper cable by the side of railway tracks has also become increasingly a problem, and results in train stoppages as well as creating serious safety issues both for the perpetrators and the travelling public.
Cities across the United States have become targets for metal thieves. Manhole cover thefts increased dramatically between 2007 and 2008, with Philadelphia as one of the hardest hit targets. Other cities dealing with this trend include Chicago, Greensboro, North Carolina, and Long Beach, California.
Copper wire thefts are also becoming increasingly common in the U.S. With copper prices at $3.70 a pound as of June 2007, compared to $0.60 a pound in 2002, people are increasingly stealing copper wire from telephone and power company assets. Gangs have been created, a black market for copper wire has emerged, and men even have been killed in power plants while trying to obtain copper wire. Other sources of stolen copper include railroad signal lines, grounding bars at electric substations, and even a 3000 pound bell stolen from a Buddhist temple in Tacoma, Washington, which was later recovered.
For example, Georgia, like many other states, has seen enough copper crime that a special task force has been created to fight it. The Metro Atlanta Copper Task Force is led by the Atlanta Police Department and involves police and recyclers from surrounding metro areas, Georgia Power, and the Fulton County DA’s office.
Many states around the nation have passed – or are exploring – legislation to combat the problem. A new Georgia law took effect in July 2007 making it a crime to knowingly buy stolen metal. It allows prosecutors to prosecute for the actual cost of returning property to original conditions, as many of these thefts dramatically hurt the surrounding property value.
In response to the growing concerns and the lack of hard numbers on these crimes in Indianapolis, IN, the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD) and the University of Indianapolis Community Research Center (CRC) began in 2008 a collaborative effort to collect data on metal thefts. The Indianapolis Metal Theft Project gathers and analyzes a wide variety of data to provide a clearer understanding of the incidence, types, costs, and impacts of metal theft in Indianapolis in order to inform and implement strategies to reduce these crimes and their impacts.
The Department of Justice's Office of Community-Oriented Policing and the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing published its 58th problem-solving guide in 2010 directed towards Theft of Scrap Metal. The author of the guide, Brandon Kooi, Ph.D., provides a review of the problem in the U.S. and internationally, followed by a number of suggested responses and what to consider in those responses.
The International Association of Property Crime Investigators presents the annual National Metal Theft Investigation Seminar uniting law enforcement and corporate security to share, learn and network to combat metal theft.
The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries is one of the groups backing these educational efforts throughout the country. As the nation’s trade association for the scrap recycling industry, ISRI provides members and community leaders with resources that they can use when facing the issue. They have also teamed with the National Crime Prevention Council (known for McGruff the Crime Dog and the “Take a Bite Out of Crime” slogan) in an effort to team with law enforcement and crime prevention organizations to fight and solve this problem, and have established a theft alert system that these groups can use. ISRI and the National Crime Prevention Council offer a number of tips for how to fight and prevent metal theft, including requiring photo ID and license plate information for every transaction, training employees on identifying stolen goods, and keeping good records that might be useful later.
- Gold laundering
- Gresham's law
- Manhole cover theft
- Penny debate in the United States
- Street sign theft
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- FBI — Copper Theft - Press Room - Headline Archives 12-03-08