To Catch a Thief: Red Metal Crimes

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Broken glass, muddy footprints, and writing on the wall: Signs of breaking and entering, theft and vandalism, are often common after a house is foreclosed. An article in the Wall Street Journal last week shared a troubling tale of discontent, a report of old owners trashing their houses for “revenge” after foreclosure. To persuade homeowners to leave their foreclosed houses in decent shape, many lenders and their agents have offered to pay some homeowners hundreds or even thousands of dollars. It’s not just a settlement; it’s a bribe, and sometimes it works, particularly in more affluent neighborhoods. In most cases, this reward would be much higher than the amount of money a homeowner could receive selling small pieces of scrap metal on the black market. However, a recent article from Reuters suggests that, “In areas hit hardest by foreclosures … copper and other metals used in plumbing, heating systems and telephone lines are now more valuable than some homes.” This article describes the recent outbreak of copper thefts in several foreclosed and abandoned homes in the U.S. With the red metal growing hotter in price–in the past three years, copper prices have seen a 400% rise–ever-increasing thefts exploit the metal around the world.

It’s not always former homeowners that walk out with an extra gift in hand; the incentives from the price of this commodity make foreclosed houses ripe for thefts from anyone with knowledge of the subject and an interest in shady dealings. Homes in Brockton, Mass., for example, have been ripped apart by thieves in search of copper, brass, and aluminum. The metals are quickly sold to scrap metal traders and sent overseas.

“We’re in an incredibly unfortunate time where the nonferrous metals commodities market for scrap is at an all time high,” the article quoted Tony Brancatelli, councilor for the city of Cleveland. “Houses are getting stripped pretty quickly once they go through the foreclosure process.”

There are even copper stealing gangs, such as the gang in Spain now infamous for stealing 1,500 tons worth of copper cables.

More recent copper crimes and responses include:

– In my home state, Missouri, copper thieves seem to have little respect for the dead. In Dunklin County, metal pilferers have moved from cheating farmers and area businesses to stealing from those who can’t fight back–the recently deceased at cemeteries throughout the area. “The vases that sit alongside head stones at various burial plots are being taken. The metal frames that surround portraits of the deceased or religious artwork are also being stolen … the cost of one flower vase alone averages about $250 … Most will take the five- to 10-pound items to local recycling companies and salvage yards who are paying top dollar for the stolen merchandise, no questions asked.” This can’t shine a positive light on the Show-Me State.

– A horrific and fatal explosion in El Monte, Calif., has been linked to an attempted copper crime. The victim was believed to have been involved in a copper wire theft. Cause of death is still officially unknown, but we already know that pulling on live copper wires is never a wise idea.

– In Florida, a man posed as an employee of Cable Electric Services to gain access to a building site which housed copper. “Employees spotted him struggling to lug two spools of copper wire and a hammer drill off the site. ËœHe could barely carry it,’ said Derek Crumley, the project manager.”

– Two men in Wisconsin sold “more than $19,000 worth of copper wire to toys scrap and salvage in Eau Claire County.” A police officer found them one night trying to dig their four-wheeler from a ditch – where they happened to be carrying a tree trimmer, rubber gloves, and a portable police scanner. Afterwards, Union Pacific Railroad announced that sizeable portions of copper were missing from the area. Employees at a scrap metal shop helped capture the two men.

– What’s next? How about the Bonnie and Clyde of copper theft? This dynamic duo has recently been freed on bail in Australia after a magistrate found there was not ample evidence of the stolen copper railway wire that was allegedly shipped to China. There have also been siblings arrested together for copper theft, as well as a father/son duo that, once again, met a very sad end.

Communities are ardently searching for ways to nab criminals. In Cape Town, South Africa, more than 100 copper thieves have been arrested in the past six months, thanks to Cape Town’s copper-busting unit, the Copperheads. In Michigan, police started a unit with the sole purpose of catching criminals breaking into foreclosed, abandoned houses. Maybe Brockton, the town with the foreclosure thefts mentioned earlier, should follow their lead, because the unit found success in their first day, catching a man already suspected of copper theft with a pair of wire cutters. “Copper is getting close to $5 a pound and we’ve had more than 10 vacant houses broken into in the last couple of months,” Oak Park Public Safety Lt. Mike Pousak explained, so the unit hopes to decrease the number of houses that are robbed for metal content–since, unfortunately for metals buyers, it isn’t as easy to decrease the actual cost of copper.

 -Amy Edwards

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