The Return of the Copper Thieves

Back in the spring of 2008, with copper prices hovering around $4 a pound, copper thefts became a worldwide epidemic. And when prices fell to close to $1 a pound by the end of the year, thefts fell off as well. But now, as copper prices near $3 a pound, copper theft seems to be making a comeback.

In the past week alone, multiple thefts have been reported with thieves stealing wiring for highway lights in Reno, Nevada, AT&T phone lines in Atlanta and grounding wire for a hydro-electric sub-station in Canada. Thieves even took an entire bus station roof in Virginia.

While the thefts seem to yield only a few hundred dollars at a time, authorities are concerned because they can cause thousands of dollars worth of damages in the process. For instance, Reno authorities have had to struggle to repair the lights in darkened highways while AT&T has been so disrupted by phone line thefts that it has instituted a $3,000 reward for any information leading to the arrest of copper thieves. And economic damages are not the only problem. Many thieves are not the most sophisticated and are willing to cut wires with little regard for the current running through them, risking severe burns and even death.

Although it seems somewhat mundane, copper theft has been a big problem for a while now. According to the Electrical Safety Foundation International’s 2008 Copper Theft Baseline Survey of Utilities:

  • 81.4% of utility companies were concerned about copper theft;
  • 95.1% had experienced copper theft in the past year;
  • 86.6% had a process in place to track incidences of copper theft;
  • Over the previous 12-month period, an estimated 50,193 incidences of copper theft occurred;
  • 7,919 of those incidences involved energized equipment;
  • The value of copper material stolen in the 12-month period was an estimated $20,167,738; (including the value of copper material, the impact of the copper thefts from utilities nationwide cost $60,397,818);
  • The number of outages due to copper theft was an estimated 456,210 minutes; 52 injuries nationwide; and 35 deaths.
  • According to the ESFI, at least 26 states have considered legislative action, such as the Copper Theft Prevention Act of 2008, that would would impose stricter penalties and regulations on metal recyclers and dealers who engage in copper transactions.