Stealing Steel, Copping Copper

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    By Kaye Nelson

    Not much else is as frustrating to a construction worker as showing up to work at a job site and finding needed work materials disappeared overnight.

    That”s just the sort of thing that Kelly Wheeler, commercial service manager at Multi-Craft Contractors Inc. in Springdale, Ark., works to prevent. His company installs air conditioning and heating units on commercial buildings and takes lengthy measures to ensure that needed construction items are not stolen.

    “We don”t leave anything on a site unless we can install it that day,” Wheeler said. “Or we might come back the next day and it”s gone. We personally have not had materials stolen from a work site because we have a procedure in place to prevent that from happening.”

    Copper is one metal thieves are targeting because of the high price it fetches at scrap metal recycling plants. Recent thefts of copper wire have left businesses paying higher replacement costs and currently the Utah legislature is considering a bill to help stem the flow of illegal metal.

    Even highways are dark and menacing because of thievery. The Star Bulletin on the island of Oahu reported the theft of copper wiring from 50 freeway lights, leaving an area dark for drivers. A recent rash of copper wire thefts in Summit County (where Park City is located) led to the arrest of a man who may have been involved in thefts totaling more than $100,000.

    Summit County Sheriff David A. Edmunds explained metal theft has risen recently.

    “Metal theft has increased exponentially over the past few years,” Edmunds said in an e-mail. “And copper wire is the primary item being stolen. This is directly related to the cost of the product.”

    Ken Swenson, a buyer for Western Metals Recycling in Provo, has been in the scrap metal business for more than 30 years and has seen the price of copper increase from 60 cents a pound in 1973 to its current price of just over $2 a pound. In 2004 it reached a high of nearly $3 a pound.

    “In 2004 the price of all metal commodities, especially copper, just went crazy,” Swenson said. “When it hit $3 a pound it was a whole new thing. People could generate a lot of money in a hurry.”

    Swenson said because of the rise in prices, armed guards had to be placed on receiving docks.

    “It got dangerous and there were armed robberies,” Swenson recalled. “Employees were ordered to put 4,000 pound bales of copper in the backs of trucks.” One bale was a $12,000 steal. Compare that to the ”70s when a 40,000 pound semi-truck of copper was only worth $24,000.

    The Utah legislature recently addressed House Bill 44, requiring scrap metal dealers to fingerprint everyone selling scrap metal.

    Sen. Jon Greiner, R-Ogden, sponsored the bill and said, “It came at the request of Utah sheriffs due to high thefts in rural areas. The bill has the support of Kennecott, Utah General Contractors and PacificCorp due to thefts.”

    Sheriff Edmunds testified in favor of the bill when it went to committee before this session.

    “The bill has merit, but the industry is fighting against it,” Edmunds said. “I believe requiring a fingerprint is a significant deterrent to criminals.”

    Swenson countered, saying people in the industry are already doing a lot to deter criminals from selling them stolen goods.

    The procedure at Western Metals Recycling is comprehensive.

    Photographs are taken of customers and scrap metal. A government issued ID is scanned and information is recorded. Another picture is taken of the vehicle that carried the goods.

    A customer is given a bar-coded receipt that an office clerk scans, bringing up the customer”s information. A signature is required and the money paid comes from a company owned ATM machine, accessed with a card given to the customer. At the ATM, another photo is taken, adding to the already thorough security process.

    Swenson said it costs a lot of money to take all of these security precautions.

    “Now we might be asked to fingerprint people?” Swenson queried. “We”re already doing more than the government.”

    Fran Jackson, secretary at Western Metals, said it”s a privacy issue to give out so much personal information.

    “People are worried about identity theft,” Jackson said. “But your information never goes anywhere but with this ticket,” holding a customer”s paper to obtain money for his empty cans. The company protects all information that customers are required to give.

    Swenson added while scrap metal theft is on the increase, it doesn”t impact what goes on at their Provo facility that much.

    He said it”s like the grocery business – 99 percent is good, clear business. One percent is lost through theft. At his facility most customers are legitimate with honest products to sell. Thieves do come in with stolen goods, but it”s minimal and they are sometimes pretty easy to spot, he said.

    “If it has identification on it like Utah Power and Light, that has a specific crimp in it, we refuse to buy it,” Swenson said.

    While theft like copper wiring occurs on a large scale, other less noticeable thefts occur as well. BYU grounds director Roy Peterman spoke of metal related thefts on campus.

    “We”ve had some incidents but we”ve heightened our security,” Peterman said. “It doesn”t rank in terms of hundreds or thousands of pounds – it”s relatively small.”

    Peterman said some people take aluminum cans out of recycling bins on campus.

    “They get such a small amount of money,” Peterman said. “These are people in dire straits. They just have to do something to make a living – to get food or support unauthorized habits.”

    He added if people are caught, they are told it is against University policy and to put it back. But if they have a history of stealing, they get a visit by University police.

    Swenson said that many thieves caught selling to his company are repeat customers. Police will come and look at someone”s picture and say, “Oh, yeah, we know him.”

    “Something in the system is letting them continue,” Swenson lamented. “It”s never ending, but we all try.”

    Speaking of thieves who keep returning with stolen goods to Western Metals, Jackson gave one reason she thinks the situation never ends.

    “They”re so dumb in the way they never learn,” Jackson said.

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