The high price of copper and other base metals has led to an increase of metal theft incidents across the country, and Ohio leads the nation for insurance claims resulting from the crime, according to a new report.
Copper theft is the most common item for the crime, and thieves in the Miami Valley region have stolen copper piping and wiring from churches, abandoned homes and buildings, construction sites, cellphone towers and other unguarded properties, resulting in tens of thousands of dollars in losses and damages.
Local law enforcement officials urge the public to be on the lookout for suspicious behavior near unoccupied structures, industrial and construction sites, and they ask residents to contact police when they see something amiss.
“Is there any magic solution that can stop it? I don’t know of any,” said Lt. Charley Stepp with the Greene County Sheriff’s office. “Just be diligent and keep your property locked up.”
Insurance claims linked to metal theft across the country jumped to 25,083 between 2009 and 2011, up 81 percent from the three-year period between 2006 and 2008, according to a new report by the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
Property owners in Ohio made 2,398 insurance claims linked to the theft of metal between 2009 and 2011, the largest number of claims in the country. Texas ranked second with 2,023 claims.
Officials said most metal theft is not reported to insurance companies, and unfortunately no agency collects information about the number of police reports across the country linked to the crime.
Of course, Ohio’s large number of claims could simply reflect that property owners in the state are more diligent about reporting losses to their insurance companies than elsewhere in the country, said Frank Scafidi, spokesman with the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
Regardless, theft of copper accounted for 96 percent of all metal reported stolen to insurance companies between 2009 and 2011, the bureau said.
Thieves are largely motivated to steal copper because of its high price, which last summer reached $4 per pound, officials said. Between 2001 and 2008, the price of copper, driven by a rising demand for the metal in developing nations, increased by more than 500 percent, according to the FBI.
Another motivation is that the crime is difficult to solve and the risk of getting caught in the act is fairly low because thieves target unprotected buildings and infrastructure, officials said.
“There really is no (surefire) prevention, other than 24-7 monitoring somehow, which gets expensive,” Scafidi said.
Stepp said metal theft is likely the most common form of stealing in the county, and thieves are always on the prowl for copper, aluminum and even vehicles’ catalytic converters for the platinum, palladium and rhodium they contain.
Stepp said most metal theft is a way for drug addicts to get money to feed their habits, and “they will steal any metal they can get away with.”
Stepp said some metal thieves are caught when they try to sell their ill-gotten gains at reputable scrap yards, and the owners contact authorities when their suspicions are aroused. But authorities are typically unable to identify the culprits responsible for most metal heists, and a lack of evidence and witnesses make the cases nearly impossible to solve.
On Feb. 29, four people were arrested for allegedly trying to steal about $10,000 of copper tubing and piping from the rooftop of the United Christian Center at 433 Oak St. in Dayton.
Pastor David Swartz Jr. credited neighborhood residents for the arrests. Two of the suspects were found by police walking away from the church, while two more were on the roof of the building.
Officials said the best protection against being victimized by metal thieves is common sense.
They recommend that residents install lighting, alarms and locks on their property to discourage criminals. Cars and trucks should be kept in garages whenever possible, and residents should report suspicious behavior.
Still, authorities admit that it is not an easy crime to thwart.
“Unfortunately, if they want it, they are going to get it,” Stepp said. “You’d have to sit an armed guard there all night to catch a person.”
By Cornelius Frolik, Dayton Daily News, March 19, 2012
Contact this reporter at (937) 225-0749 or cfrolik@DaytonDailyNews.com.