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5 Ways to Thwart Copper Thieves

Public agencies employ many strategies and technologies to protect critical infrastructure.

by / March 26, 2012

Apparently nothing is sacred. Late last year, copper thieves struck the final resting place of Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Ill., stealing the three-foot copper sword from the statue marking Lincoln’s tomb. Commanding nearly $4 a pound, copper continues to be a prime target for theft, causing damage that cumulatively reaches into the millions for many jurisdictions.

Victimizing utility companies, construction sites, commercial businesses, schools, rail yards and even residential HVAC systems, perpetrators can cause massive disruption to essential public services. The growth in copper theft over the past several years has given rise to several key strategies to combat the problem.

1.    End Cash Payments –
Illinois state Rep. Mike Unes authored a bill forbidding metal recyclers to pay cash for any amount of recyclable metal. The legislation also requires buyers to keep more detailed records on their transactions and forbids the purchase of metals from sellers with certain felony convictions.

2.    Leave the Lights On –
Some jurisdictions center their copper theft deterrent strategy around existing resources, like lights. In Roseville, Calif., outside of Sacramento, a nearly $25,000 copper theft in 2011 at a popular community park facility prompted officials to keep the lights on, 24 hours a day.

3.    Video Surveillance – Larger facilities, such as utility companies, with significant resources at stake, are turning to around-the-clock video feeds at key locations to combat copper theft. Cameras can serve as a visual deterrent to would-be thieves, and real-time video can prove a crucial tool to law enforcement in apprehending suspects.

4.    Incident Tracking Technology –
“Rabit”, a rapid assessment incident tracking technology is now in use in Scotland by BT, a major London-based telecommunications company. Expected to have significant copper theft prevention capabilities, it sends out an alert to the company’s security center and police when the telephone and broadband network comes under attack. Described as a burglar alarm on the network, Rabit technology can provide the specific geographic parameters of an incident.

5.    Regional Collaboration –
Metal theft rings are rarely confined to one municipality in an area. The Metro Atlanta Copper Task Force, comprising 27 local law enforcement agencies, is pooling resources to analyze patterns and bring arrests.

In November 2010, Government Technology reported on a statewide copper theft reporting database being used by law enforcement officials in Arkansas, which logged details on 250,000 daily transactions throughout the state. Mississippi and Arizona now use this method as well, as do large jurisdictions including Birmingham, Ala., and Houston. The system, from Leads Online, helps public safety professionals connect details on stolen property, including serial and model numbers, with suspect information and sales tickets from scrap metal yards and pawn shops.


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Noelle Knell Editor

Government Technology editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of writing and editing experience, covering public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and on Twitter.

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