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Responses to the Problem of Scrap Metal Theft

Analyzing your local problem should give you a better understanding of the factors contributing to it. Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you should consider possible responses to address the problem.

The following response strategies provide a foundation of ideas for addressing your particular problem. These strategies are drawn from a variety of research studies and police reports. Several of these strategies may apply to your community's problem. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem. Do not limit yourself to considering what the police can do: carefully consider whether others in your community share responsibility for the problem and can help the police better respond to it. In some cases, you may need to shift the responsibility of responding toward those who have the capacity to implement more-effective responses. (For more detailed information on shifting and sharing responsibility, see Response Guide No. 3, Shifting and Sharing Responsibility for Public Safety Problems).

General Considerations for an Effective Response Strategy

Both local and international supply and demand strongly influence scrap metal theft, and you can broadly tie local scrap metal theft problems to international demand and higher prices resulting from limited supplies. Despite this broad connection between international demand and U.S. scrap metal supply, you can initiate effective local scrap theft response strategies through a market reduction approach.32 Making it difficult for offenders and scrap metal dealers to successfully do business interrupts the process of crime cooperation without relying on constant arrests.33 Ultimately, these responses should attempt to mitigate the problem of scrap metal theft through collaborative efforts between the police, scrap metal dealers, utility companies, builders, contractors, legislatures, and state regulators.§

§ The British Metals Recycling Association has collaborated with the Association of Chief Police Officers and the British Transport Police to reduce scrap metal theft from its members and identify stolen metal showing up in scrap yards.

You should not focus solely on apprehending offenders, but rather should extend your responses to those that reduce scrap metal theft opportunities. Because most metal remains unsecure, public awareness and reporting of scrap metal theft is vital to improve guardianship and implement an effective response. Focusing solely on metal theft loss will not lead to long-term success. For example, burglary and property theft have some of the lowest clearance rates. If police clear a case and agencies can return stolen goods to the rightful owner, which seldom happens, the owner may not want the property back if it has been damaged. When you recover stolen metal from a scrap metal dealer and return it to the rightful owner, the metal is usually not in the same condition as before the theft. Consequently, the rightful owner may simply sell the metal back to a scrap metal dealer, and the dealer may end up paying for the metal twice. Therefore, focusing resources on reacting to scrap metal theft is not likely to impact the problem of victimization, and you should direct collaborative efforts toward prevention.

Depending on existing laws pertaining to scrap metal theft in your jurisdiction, you should consider additional legislative action. More than 30 states have recently enacted legislation to address scrap metal theft, and at the time of this writing, it is being considered at the federal level.§ States have varied regarding legislation they have passed in terms of emphasis on preventing or punishing scrap metal thieves. Some legislation prohibits the sale or purchase of certain metal products such as beer kegs or guardrails. Other legislation mandates better sales-reporting means such as stipulating proper seller ID. State and local legislative changes continue to evolve, and reliable research about the new laws' effectiveness remains scarce.

§ As of late 2008, the U.S. Senate was deliberating the federal Copper Theft Prevention Act. The bill does not preclude states from enacting their own laws but provides a baseline for what states must do. The proposed federal law would require scrap metal dealers to do the following: keep records of copper transactions, including the name and address of the seller, the date of the transaction, the amount and description of the copper, and the number from the seller's driver's license or other government-issued ID card; maintain these records for a minimum of one year and provide them to law enforcement agencies to help them track down and prosecute copper thieves; and conduct transactions of more than $250 by check instead of cash. The law would impose civil penalties up to $10,000 for failing to document a transaction or for engaging in cash transactions of more than $250.

Specific Responses To Reduce Scrap Metal Theft

Increasing the Effort Required To Steal Metal

1. Hardening scrap metal theft targets. Some commonly stolen metal products can be made harder to steal. You should educate government agencies, builders, utility companies, and scrap metal dealers as to how to do so (see examples below) and, more generally, on the principles of crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED),§§ physical security, and inventory control. The following are some specific measures you can take to deter thefts of common targets:

  • Securing catalytic converters, which are attractive theft targets and can be better secured for roughly the same price as replacing them (see below).
    catalytic converter CatClamp

    Photo Credit: www.catclamp.com

  • Chaining manhole covers.
  • Caging air conditioners to prevent coil theft (see below).
conditioner cover

Photo Credit: www.protectyourac.com

§§ See Problem-Solving Tools GuideNo. 8, Using Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design in Problem-Solving, for further information.

2. Securing vulnerable places. Certain places such as utility companies, construction sites, and empty buildings are vulnerable to scrap metal theft. Proprietary assets-protection personnel should collaborate with the police and any community members (e.g., business employees, politicians, property owners who have been victimized) who are working to address scrap metal theft problems. This collaboration could include sharing incident data, determining whether risk surveys may be useful in foreseeing vulnerabilities, and using countermeasures.

The U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability recommends a number of countermeasures to protect utility companies from scrap metal theft through CPTED and defensible-space concepts. 34 Utility companies and the private security firms they hire can implement most of these measures, and the police should encourage them to do so. Among the recommendations are the following:

  • Perform threat/risk analyses to identify utility substations' vulnerabilities.
  • Ensure that utility customer service centers can conduct electronic surveillance of facilities in real time, remotely control alarm systems, and communicate with security personnel.
  • Redesign substation grounding straps to reduce exposed copper.
  • Use concrete (contact GS) or other protective covers for grounding wire.
  • Develop new-style locking hardware to replace old chain locks.
  • Ensure that perimeter fencing is cut-resistant.
  • Improve lighting, intrusion alarms, security cameras, signs, and landscaping to promote surveillance.
  • Secure equipment, materials, and vehicle keys at night and on weekends.
  • Require gates to remain closed to unauthorized personnel where appropriate.
  • Add roving security patrols at larger service centers after business hours.
  • Install signs warning potential offenders about the risk they face when cutting wires.§

§ The Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability (2007) reports the Appalachian Power Company sought to curb copper wire thefts by launching a media/radio campaign, teaching scrap metal dealers how to identify metal stolen from electrical facilities, sharing more information with law enforcement, increasing security around company substations, and educating employees on identifying risks from damaged equipment left after a metal theft offense had occurred.

utility surveillance warning sign

Photo Credit: Brandon Kooi

Many of the measures one would take to prevent burglary to houses or businesses can also discourage scrap metal thefts from vacant houses and buildings.§§ Of special importance here, banks and real estate companies should try to avoid making it too obvious that a property is vacant or unprotected. Lenders might consider allowing tenants to stay in the property until a permanent owner can move in.§§§

§§ See Problem-Specific Guide No. 15, Burglary of Retail Establishments, and No. 18, Burglary of Single-Family Houses, for further information.

§§§ Some neighborhoods or area businesses have chosen to voluntarily provide upkeep for vacant houses or commercial property by maintaining the exterior in a way that protects their own property interests. These temporary guardians should, of course, not be permitted to make any major changes to the vacant property.

Although construction sites can be more difficult to secure than finished buildings, among the measures that can be taken are the following:

  • improving security lighting,
  • installing video surveillance cameras,
  • installing alarm systems,
  • using secure portable storage units on-site, and
  • installing proper fencing.§

§ See Problem-Specific Guide No. 43, Burglary at Single-Family House Construction Sites, for further details.

Railroad yards, which commonly contain a lot of metal products, similarly require special protection.§§

§§ The British Transport police initiated Operation Drum, collaborating with Network Rail to secure unguarded copper left alongside railway tracks (Professional Security Magazine, 2008). Network Rail now stores copper in secure (i.e., locked) depots. Other countermeasures surrounding the British railway include better fencing, warning signs, improved lighting, surveillance cameras, increased patrols, motion sensors, and wire devaluation.

Increasing Offenders' Risks

3. Identifying scrap metal thieves. Throughout areas known to have incidents of metal theft, officers should look for suspicious activity. For example, offenders often cut stolen copper wire into 2- to 6-foot sections. Suspicion of scrap metal theft can arise when officers spot copper wire tied to the roof of a car headed to a scrap metal dealer or in the bed of a noncommercial vehicle that lacks a company insignia. In addition to transporting stolen metal, offenders often burn the insulation off copper wire, using large drums or open fire pits. Officers in search of methamphetamine labs may also happen upon areas where metal insulation is being burned off of copper, as scrap metal dealers prefer the bare metal.

4. Identifying scrap metal sellers. Scrap metal dealers should be required to record the IDs of sellers and verify that they are authorized to sell scrap metal. As the trade association for the scrap metal industry, the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI)§§§ collaborates with the National Crime Prevention Council and recommends that all dealers require sellers to provide a photo ID and collect license plate information for every transaction. Moreover, as a stakeholder with an interest in addressing the scrap metal theft problem, the ISRI recommends training employees to identify stolen metal and maintain records that could be used for prosecution purposes. In partnership with police agencies and scrap metal buyers, the ISRI developed a web-based theft alert system to notify scrap metal dealers about stolen metal reported to the police (see www.scraptheftalert.com). The ISRI encourages dealers to notify local agencies when they suspect thieves are selling them stolen metal.

§§§ The ISRI is a nonprofit lobbying group representing more than 1,350 scrap metal dealers. See www.isri.org. In September 2008, ISRI hired a manager for their theft prevention program to act as a liaison between the scrap recycling industry and law enforcement, with the goal of curbing scrap metal theft.

5. Recording and tracking scrap metal transactions. Scrap metal dealers should be required to maintain a written record of all transactions, including the identity of the seller, a description of items bought, the amount of money paid, and the reported source of the scrap metal. Requiring further that dealers pay sellers by check rather than cash should deter sellers who prefer to remain anonymous. Accurate record-keeping has the potential both to deter thieves from trying to sell stolen metal and to help police link metal sellers to reported metal thefts.

6. Putting ID marks on targeted metal products. Although property-marking has never been proved to reduce theft largely because thieves will steal marked property and fences and citizens will buy it35, §, conspicuous marking of metal products can give scrap metal buyers firmer grounds on which to challenge attempted sales of marked items. This is most likely to be effective where other measures are put in place that give buyers incentives to refuse buying marked metal.

§ See Problem-Specific Guide No.57 Stolen Goods Markets for further information.

Offering free etching of vehicle identification numbers (VIN) on auto parts that typically lack them, such as catalytic converters and third-row seats in SUVs and minivans, can discourage their theft. Ideally, automakers will someday stamp the VIN on all commonly stolen auto parts.

Etching deters thieves from stealing the parts (if the thieves know the metal is marked), deters scrap metal dealers from receiving stolen parts (if the scrap metal dealers know the metal is marked), and provides a tracking mechanism for catching thieves who try to sell etched property or scrap metal dealers who receive it. For deterrence purposes, offenders would need to be informed that the property has been tagged and that they face a greater risk of being questioned or caught. Moreover, for this response to be effective, scrap metal dealers must be willing to report sales of etched metals to police, which will be unlikely if dealers are complicit (i.e., not likely to challenge sellers) in the scrap metal theft trade.

In addition to etching auto parts, new wire-marking technologies have been developed such as the following:36

  • Electroplated coding of metal wires uniquely identifies them. A laser etches a company's name and telephone number throughout the length of the wire, which can be detected through ultraviolet light reflected in the adhesive.§
  • Wire can be dipped in or sprayed with a coded liquid that remains intact even if the wire insulation is burned.37

§ The Texas power company Oncor reported it lowered its recorded scrap metal theft in 2006 compared with 2005 using Identification Technologies' nanotechnology. However, Oncor also undertook other security precautions, such as installing security systems on perimeter fencing, clearing landscaping blockage away from perimeter fencing to increase natural surveillance, increasing security lighting, and replacing the stolen copper wire with copper weld. Despite these precautions, thieves are still stealing from the utility company, but at a lesser extent. See http://tdworld.com/test_monitor_control/highlights/oncor-copper-theft-prevention.

7. Conducting sting operations.§§ Sting operations target scrap metal dealers who violate purchasing regulations. Intelligence or information gleaned from local offenders can help identify dealers reputed to buy stolen metal. Sometimes these operations are limited to verifying scrap yard employees' and contractors' credentials. Other times they involve undercover police officers' trying to sell obviously stolen metal to see if the scrap metal dealers follow state laws requiring proper seller ID and report suspicious activities to law enforcement. A word of caution: sting operations can have the unintended consequence of increasing scrap metal theft if they create a perceived new demand for stolen metal.38 To ensure that sting operations are not just catching unwitting scrap metal dealers, you should consider appropriately educating dealers about any pertinent legislative changes dealing with scrap metal theft.

§§ See Response Guide No. 6, Sting Operations, for further information.

The Eau Claire (Wisconsin) Police Department devoted approximately 1,000 hours over seven months conducting undercover transactions with scrap/salvage yards. Officers collaborated with railroad companies, beer distributors, and a major power company to "test" local scrap metal dealers' honesty. In the investigation, the department used covert recording devices, purchased and donated by the power company. The goal of the investigation was not to arrest scrap metal dealers, but rather to establish the need for legislative changes. Police administrators worked with state and local legislatures to enact new laws requiring seller IDs and descriptions of property sold to metal dealers, and granted authority for local government to mandate electronic reporting of metal sales to the police, lessening the burden of physically checking individual sales records. Officers met with scrap metal dealers and explained the new state law. However, undercover operations still found scrap metal dealers' buying metal that should have raised suspicions. Police then executed search warrants and found stolen materials at various scrap yards. Instead of making arrests, a number of press releases followed, educating the general public about the problem of scrap metal theft and the scrap metal dealers about the serious criminal repercussions that would result from continued bad business practices. Scrap metal dealers were subsequently found to change a variety of business practices, including hiring more employees to properly document transactions; buying scrap vehicles only from licensed dealers; buying copiers and fax machines to send the police department transaction reports; and exchanging emails with scrap metal theft investigators. Consequently, undercover compliance checks of scrap metal dealers have verified that changes have occurred, and short-term results have shown Eau Claire has experienced significant reductions in scrap metal theft.39

8. Surveilling scrap metal yards. Although time-consuming, surveilling scrap metal yards can temporarily deter metal thieves and buyers, particularly if officers conspicuously question suspects as they enter the scrap yards. Additional responses will likely be necessary to sustain any impact that surveillance might make on the local scrap metal theft problem.

9. Offering reward money for tips on metal thieves. Police, crime prevention organizations, or companies victimized by scrap metal theft can establish hotlines and offer reward money for tips about suspected scrap metal theft.

Reducing the Rewards for Selling Stolen Metal

10. Removing attractive targets. To discourage scrap metal theft from construction sites, you should encourage construction companies to use on-demand shipping of metal products to eliminate dormant stockpiles at the site.

11. Replacing copper ground wire with copper weld. Some utility companies have begun to replace all-copper grounds with copper wound around galvanized metal, known as copper weld. Copper weld is worth far less than all-copper grounds, and people consider the process of unwinding copper from a metal rod very tedious.40 Initiatives targeting copper theft through this strategy will need to find ways to let potential offenders know that stealing copper weld is not financially rewarding.

12. Prohibiting the purchase of restricted materials. Scrap metal dealers should be legally prohibited from buying metal used primarily by government agencies, utilities, or builders and that is brought to the dealer by people unaffiliated with these entities. Clearly marking metal products that scrap metal dealers cannot or will not buy discourages thieves from stealing the metal in the first place.41 Encouraging scrap metal dealers to post signs indicating that they will not accept stolen or prohibited metal and will report sellers to the police can deter metal thieves.

warning sign

Photo Credit: Puyallup (Washington) Police Department

beer keg signs

Scrap metal dealers can post signs such as the ones above to deter metal thieves. Credit: www.BeerInstitute.org

13. Prohibiting cash payments. Refusing cash payments may deter some metal sellers. For example, a drug addict who wants quick cash or those who cannot convert a check into cash easily might decide stealing metal is not worth their time. Moreover, requiring payments in check form may also deter thieves by increasing the risk that police can later identify them.

14. Increasing the financial incentive to safeguard certain metal products. Raising the deposit amount on beer kegs, for example, gives customers a greater incentive to return the empty kegs rather than abandon them, leaving them for people to sell as scrap. For example, Michigan tripled its keg deposit to $30 for the average keg-user after getting pressure from brewers who were losing significant profits due to theft.

Removing Offenders' Excuses

15. Conducting a public awareness campaign. In some communities where scrap metal theft is prevalent, citizens and businesses may become tolerant of being victimized or more willing to buy metal they suspect has been stolen. A scrap-metal theft public-awareness campaign can educate citizens and businesses about the serious consequences of scrap metal theft, including the dangers of electrocution and missing manhole covers, the inconvenience caused by trains delayed by missing tracks, and the rising construction costs due to scrap metal theft. An awareness campaign can perhaps also encourage informal social pressure against stealing metal and trading in stolen metal. Publicly reporting how much metal is being stolen and where it is occurring apprises the public of the problem and of whether it is improving or worsening. Police agency web sites or the mass media can issue such reports.

16. Educating stakeholders about their responsibilities in preventing the sale of stolen scrap metal. New legislation alone will not suffice to change scrap metal dealers' management practices. Stakeholders must be educated on their legal obligations and the importance of fulfilling them. The Oregon Metal Theft Coalition discovered the challenge in educating stakeholders after they surveyed police and scrap metal recyclers.42 They discovered that among police survey respondents, half were unaware of important provisions in the law (such as mandatory identification of sellers and noncash payments); 60 percent had no way of tracking scrap metal theft as a unique theft category, thus preventing a true account of these property crimes; and 78 percent were not conducting compliance checks on scrap metal dealers. The coalition found that while the new law improved relationships between scrap metal dealers and the police, recyclers were increasingly buying scrap metal without employees' knowledge of the new regulations.

Scrap metal dealers should be required to train employees on how to identify potentially stolen metal and how to report suspected sellers. Police officers and recognized stakeholders should help scrap recyclers in changing their business practices to prevent cash exchanges for stolen metal. Logistical concerns include having adequate technology for scrap recyclers, such as proper computer software, cameras, and fax machines.

Responses With Limited Effectiveness

17. Targeting individual offenders. Although police should arrest metal thieves and prosecution should follow when possible, these tactics alone are unlikely to reduce overall scrap metal theft. Individual metal thieves are readily replaced so long as scrap metal prices are sufficiently high on the local and international metals markets.

18. Enacting and enforcing "tag and hold" legislation. Some local ordinances require scrap metal dealers to record and hold certain scrap materials for a certain number of days after buying them. State laws that authorize "tag and hold" restrictions have existed for decades, but police have seldom enforced them until recently. Some scrap metal dealers have challenged the legality of local "tag and hold" ordinances in state and federal courts. Scrap metal dealers argue that state databases should be developed for recording sellers' IDs and the metal they have sold instead of requiring scrap metal dealers to hold metal for extended periods.

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