Thefts of copper, other metals on rise

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Sunday October 23, 2011

Jewelry, electronics and cash aren't the only items thieves want.

Your home also might be a gold mine -- or more accurately, a copper mine -- for criminals.

Copper pipes and wiring can bring big bucks at metal recycling centers, and so can other metals in your house, from brass to zinc and even stainless steel and iron.

Police in North Adams, Pittsfield and just across the border in New York say they've seen a dramatic increase in these types of crimes over the past three years.

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that the theft of copper wire alone is costing this country about $1 billion a year.

E. John Morocco, public safety commissioner for North Adams, said police always have had to deal with people stealing rolls of copper wire from construction sites, but now they're seeing more houses and buildings targeted. And the destruction that accompanies the removal of copper pipes or water heaters from buildings compounds the situation, he said.

Pittsfield Police Capt. John Mullin and Det. Capt. Patrick F. Barry said many of these crimes remain unsolved.

FBI crime stats

Although county crime statistics from the FBI do not specifically include numbers on metal theft, they do indicate an increase in reported thefts in general from 2008 to 2010, the latest year in which information is available.

The numbers for property crimes, which include burglary, arson, motor vehicle theft and larcenies, went from 2,688 in 2008 to 2,927 in 2010, a 9 percent increase. For thefts, the numbers went from 1,670 to 1,951, an increase of about 17 percent.

Morocco and Barry blame the rise in metal thefts on the combination of a bad economy and high metal prices.

"It's not just here," Morocco said. "It's nationwide."

Morocco said he recently was in Florida, where thieves are ripping air conditioners out of windows and stealing pool heaters for the copper found inside.

"It's pretty sad," he said.

Berkshire County's neighbor to the west, Columbia County, N.Y., has seen a big increase in copper thefts, according to New York State Police Sr. Investigator Gary Mazzacano, but he said the figure for these types of crimes fluctuates with the price of copper, rising when the price goes up and decreasing when the price goes down.

At the end of 2008, copper was selling for a little more than a dollar a pound after a dramatic dive from 2006 prices, but it jumped to about $4.50 a pound by April 2011 and is hovering around $3 now.

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(Aluminum -- valued just below copper and nickel on the metals scale -- is up over the past year and is selling for just under $1 a pound. Aluminum stolen from buildings can include air-conditioning units, gutters, siding, window frames and wire.)

According to the FBI, the rise in world copper prices is being driven by Chinese and Indian demand for copper and other metals as those countries continue to industrialize.

According to the FBI, the rise in world copper prices is being driven by Chinese and Indian demand for copper and other metals as those countries continue to industrialize.

Across the county, thieves have hit abandoned buildings, construction sites and second homes.

n In July, two men -- Timothy D. Primm, 31, of Bristol, Conn., and Michael D. Pieri, 25, of Becket -- were charged in a slew of home break-ins in Becket.

The men, who have pleaded not guilty, allegedly hit more than 20 mainly second homes from September 2010 to July 2011. They sold the copper pipes and other items taken from the homes in Connecticut, according to Becket Police.

A third man, Michael A. Pahl, 24, of Bristol, eventually was charged in connection with two of the crimes. He also has pleaded not guilty.

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n In August, a Pittsfield man -- 27-year-old Troy E. Sargent -- was charged with larceny over $250 for allegedly stealing 112 metal fence posts from outside St. Vincent de Paul Church in Lenox Dale. He has pleaded not guilty.

Fatal possibilities

While metal theft is costly to victims, it also can lead to a loss of life by thieves and innocent bystanders.

Last Dec. 2, 53-year-old Danny Beiso of Cheshire was electrocuted, possibly while attempting to remove copper wire near train tracks in Williamstown.

Many electrocutions in the United States occur when thieves target cell towers, electrical substations, telephone lines and railroads.

And the crimes have federal authorities concerned.

A 2008 FBI report -- an updated report is in the works -- indicated that the continued rise in copper theft across the United States is threatening the country's "critical infrastructure," because when criminals focus on these structures, they disrupt needed services, presenting a risk to public safety.

Throughout the nation, residents have suffered through power outages and water problems because of copper thieves.

In April 2008 in Jackson, Miss., five tornado warning sirens failed to alert citizens of an impending tornado because the sirens' copper wiring had been torn out by criminals. (No one was injured.)

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Unlike gold or silver, though, copper, steel and other metals are valuable to thieves only when sold to scrap dealers. And many believe the dealer level is where authorities can make a difference.

The information that scrap dealers is required to collect from the people selling the metal is regulated by local law.

In Pittsfield, scrap dealers must take down a description of the article sold, along with the name, age, address, signature and identification of the person selling the metal. In North Adams, a police official said he was unaware of any regulations.

"There's no law that I know of that says [a scrap dealer] has to require positive identification," said North Adams Police Director Michael Cozzaglio.

He said he believes the lone scrap dealer in North Adams -- Apkin & Sons Inc. -- does a good job regulating what comes in and requires identification from sellers.

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, meanwhile, is trying to address the issue of bookkeeping by scrap dealers in the state.

In January, she co-sponsored "An Act Regulating Secondary Metal Dealing" with state Sen. James Timilty. The legislation would create a computer registry maintained by the state's Executive Office of Public Safety of metal scrap dealers, sellers and their wares, which would be accessible by law enforcement.

Coakley said her office is still working with the Legislature on the proposed law.

But even if the act becomes law, criminals still can travel out of state to sell their stolen goods.

To reach Andrew Amelinckx:
amelinckx@berkshireeagle.com
or (413) 496-6249

Cutting the risk

Steps that home and business owners can take to curtail the theft of metals, according to the National Insurance Company:

Install a security camera and outdoor lights.

Secure access to the structure.

Post no-trespassing signs.

Trim or remove shrubs that allow criminals to hide on the property.


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