Copper Thefts Solved With Help From Online Database

Detectives have closed hundreds of cases with information from the LeadsOnline Metal Theft Investigative System.

by / November 11, 2010
copper wire FBI

When 2,000 pounds of copper wire was sold to a scrap metal recycler in Clark County, Ark., it took only minutes for the Sheriff’s Office to determine it was the same copper that had been reported stolen from the South Central Arkansas Electric Cooperative earlier that day.

The electric company was re-conducting their lines and taking down and replacing old copper, which they left in a storage area overnight and found missing the next morning.

As required by state legislation, the scrap metal dealer had reported the seller information to law enforcement though a statewide metal theft database called LeadsOnline, and that same day the sellers were identified and arrested.

The LeadsOnline Metal Theft Investigative System (MTIS) is an online reporting database that requires scrap dealers and pawn shops to record important seller information, such as images of drivers’ licenses, vehicles and the type of metal being sold, notes on the kind or brand of metal sold and its sell price. Digital images of fingerprints are also sometimes collected. Once uploaded, all information is accessible by law enforcement professionals nationwide.

Some cities and states (like Arkansas) require the database to be used, while others participate voluntarily.

Copper Thefts Spike

With copper prices on the rise — currently about $4 a pound — copper thefts have spiked across the country, most noticeably in California and Florida. A recent survey by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability reported that legislation to reduce copper theft has been introduced in every state and passed into law in all but five states as of August 2010.

Police departments across the country have reported a strong link between methamphetamine use and copper wire theft. Thieves will steal miles of wire from schools, churches, office buildings, car washes and residences. Consequently these thieves will knock out air conditioning and power, destroy buildings, cause cell phone outages and tear up lawns. The victims not only lose the copper, but are forced to pay for additional repairs.

The MTIS is accessible though a username- and password-protected website, which agencies provide to detectives involved in metal theft cases. Officers are able to search the online database for stolen property by using serial and model numbers, as well as names, vehicle types or descriptions of the item. When search criteria is entered, a list of possible suspects pops up and each links to a replica of a sale ticket from a scrap metal yard or pawn shop. All the necessary information and images for matching the stolen merchandise is there.

LeadsOnline also partners with eBay to give officers access to automatic uploads of all transactions into the database.

Once a law enforcement agency joins, officers along with LeadsOnline officials inform each metal scrap yard or pawn shop in the jurisdiction about the new system and teach them how to enter the seller’s information. The system is no cost to the shops — the participating law enforcement agency pays the annual subscription — and is compatible with any software the shop is currently using.

At the end of each day, the shops submit their information, making it available to law enforcement officers nationwide. On average, the system receives 250,000 transactions a night.

“The old way of doing this is that the detective would go around from pawn shop to pawn shop picking up the tickets and putting them into a database or shoebox, and then they’d go and search through them for the [stolen merchandise],” said Dave Finley, CEO and president of LeadsOnline, which is based in Dallas. Plus, agencies had access to seller information only in their cities.

Metal Theft Cases Solved

More than 1,600 agencies use LeadsOnline, which also includes systems for tracking the illegal manufacture of methamphetamines and a system for cross-checking names of pawn customers against lists of known terrorists and narcotics traffickers. Officers have reported that MTIS has led to hundreds of closed metal theft cases in each city.

Cities pay for the service, but require certain agencies to pay more depending on their size. A smaller agency can expect to pay an annual subscription fee of $1,000, where an agency like the New York City Police Department would pay in the six figures, said Finley. “That way, Mayberry can have the same tools that New York City has for investigating crimes,” Finley said.

As more cities sign up, “and as this information fills in, their probability of catching a crook goes up dramatically,” he said, because they can have access to second-hand shop sales in more locations. Officers can even leave notes for each other about a suspect or stolen merchandise.

Along with government agencies, LeadsOnline works with several national pawn shops that enter sales information from all their locations.

LeadsOnline is offering a free 30-day trial for any agency that wants to sign up and try out the system. “Usually they start solving crimes the day they start the system,” the company said.

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Lauren Katims Nadeau

Lauren Katims previously served as a staff writer and contributing writer for Government Technology magazine.

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