What does it say about society today that one of the fastest-growing crimes pays just pennies?
It says people are desperate, and that drugs create an overpowering force that squeezes every cent it can from those it ensnares.
So thieves, many in need of another $25 for a quick hit of meth, take what they can carry in metals and sell it for scrap. Non-ferrous metals such as aluminum, brass, bronze and copper can bring 12 cents to $1.20 a pound from recyclers.
Houses under construction, vacant homes, even cemeteries and live electric power lines are common targets for what has become an industry that costs billions each year. Copper is the most frequently stolen metal because of its scrap value and because of the relative ease with which it can be acquired. Pipes, wires and fixtures often have significant amounts of copper.
In some cases, copper-containing materials are pulled straight from walls without regard to the damage caused. It is estimated by the U.S. Department of Energy that the theft of $100 worth of copper results in $5,000 damage.
Ohio has the distinction of leading the nation in metal thefts, based on insurance claims. Its 4,144 reports from 2011 to 2013 mostly involved copper and far surpassed number two Texas.
Until recently, there were few records kept about the prevalence of this crime. Because of its rather sporadic nature, it often was more of an annoyance than a menace. It’s also a crime that tends to be cyclical enough it’s not always in the forefront of people’s minds.
But within the past decade, thieves have become prolific. With the price of some metals soaring, everything from air-conditioner parts to catalytic converters have been swiped and sold.
Many states are still play catch-up by putting laws into place to make it a crime to knowingly buy or sell stolen metal. Others have developed or are in the process of developing guidelines for police reporting metal thefts — many law enforcement agencies still don’t keep records on the types and amounts of stolen metals.
Researchers at The Council of State Governments, working with the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, tried to study state legislation across the nation to see which of the laws were making a difference. What they found is many states aren’t collecting enough data on the problem to analyze it effectively.
What police have started seeing now is that thieves are going after the big pay-day — putting not only themselves but entire communities at risk with their exploits. Electrical substations, commercial air-conditioning systems and new housing developments are becoming favorites for thieves, according to the FBI.
In one instance, emergency sirens failed to alert residents of Jackson, Mississippi, to an approaching tornado — because the copper wiring had been stolen from the sirens.
As thieves get more daring and desperate, communities are being placed in more potential danger. It’s time for state and federal authorities to see the larger problem caused by these crimes.