What do a train station in Norway, a house in Australia, and an electrical substation in South Carolina have in common?
If you said copper theft, you answered the $1 billion question – as in this crime’s annual economic impact, a growing epidemic that plagues communities across the globe.
At the Norway train station, copper theft caused signaling and railway barriers to malfunction, forcing trains to be manually routed for hours.
In Australia, a man posing as a cable technician ripped out $110,000 worth of copper wire from hundreds of homes.
Closer to home, last summer thieves stripped a 12-foot strand of copper grounding wire worth about 10 bucks, yet ended up being much more costly. The rip off caused a substation fault, dropping service to more than 15,000 Duke Energy customers in Greenville, South Carolina.
Duke Energy is not alone. About 95 percent of utility companies report frequent copper theft crimes at an estimated annual cost of $60 million. The financial cost – from material and labor costs to lost revenue and insurance hikes – is just half the story.
True Cost of Copper TheftTangible:
- -Material: original and replacement costs that often exceed value of the stolen copper wire
- -Labor: repetitive repairs that take time away from other system maintenance projects
- -Lost revenue: unplanned outages that disrupt service and jeopardize public safety
- -Insurance rate hikes due to increased financial liability to maintain system reliability
- -Human risk: ungrounded equipment near public areas; risk to utility personnel who make repairs
- -Equipment risk: lack of grounding increases likelihood of expensive damage that cascades through the system
- -Security: added cameras and personnel for round-the-clock surveillance
- -PR: negative public opinion from customers and regulators about safety and system reliability
With every copper theft, public safety is threatened. From ballpark lighting at the neighborhood schoolyard, to homes, businesses, and traffic signals, the stripping of grounding wire exposes countless innocent people to electrical shock, or worse.
And, with the price of copper increasing 500 percent in recent years, the risk of electrocution appears to be an accepted job hazard for copper thieves eager to get in on the booming business of scrap metal sales.
Copper theft is on the rise across the country and the world. As global demand grows—along with the price thieves receive for the stolen metal—the problem continues to escalate.
Thieves target copper wire from utility substations, warehouses, homes, and construction sites, among other locations. This can start a chain reaction that has devastating effects on the reliability of the electrical grid and the community.
Curbing Copper Theft Requires Partnership Among Utilities, Recyclers, and Law Enforcement
Across the globe, partnerships among utilities, recyclers, and law enforcement are tackling the universal problem of copper theft that impacts nearly every industry. As awareness grows, the hope is that copper theft won’t be viewed as much of an ‘easy money’ target as it is today. Stopping Copper Theft is Everyone’s ResponsibilityUtilities:
Proactively installing theft deterrent solutions; educate customers to report suspicious activity.Recyclers:
Taking an active role in building relationships with utilities, law enforcement and business partners to make a difference.Law Enforcement:
Engage in a relationship with utilities and recyclers. Focus on prosecution through proof of ownership.Private Property Owners:
Take proper measures to secure installed copper. Report theft to law enforcement and recyclers.
Sending bad guys to jail is the best deterrent. That’s why advocating best practices for buying policies and working with local lawmakers to make copper theft a felony is important. In most states, theft is still only a property crime. But communities are getting serious.
In Ohio, five people were recently sentenced to prison for their roles in a conspiracy to steal copper from two dozen electrical substations. The Federal Bureau of Investigation led the prosecution that ordered one of the thieves to pay more than $206,000 in restitution to the utility.
In Pennsylvania, Verizon’s popular ad slogan, “Can you hear me now?” was no laughing matter after a string of copper thefts totaling $60,000 in damages hung up service to hundreds of phone customers. The company responded by offering up to $50,000 for information that led to the arrest and prosecution of anyone who had stolen copper cable in two local counties.
Verizon is hardly alone in its copper theft fight. Several national and regional telecoms have joined the copper theft battle with help from community members and state lawmakers. In West Virginia, the attention generated from a state lawmaker’s bill is credited with helping reduce reported copper thefts. At least four other states including Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, and Washington have introduced new copper theft laws.
Recyclers are on the front lines of the copper theft epidemic. Thieves hawk their stolen goods to locations with reputations for not asking too many questions. Cutting off point-of-sale with regulations requiring proof of ownership is very effective in getting crooks behind bars.
To build a case that will get a conviction requires the utility proving ownership and linking it to the scene of the crime. The commonality of copper wire has made that difficult. However, new technologies are making it easier for recyclers to instantly identify stolen copper, and in turn, provide law enforcement the hard proof they need to prosecute criminals.Copper Theft Deterrents Range from Low-Tech to High-TechSPRAY PAINT:
Physically marking copper with brightly colored spray paint to alert recyclers who have been trained on a notification process for informing law enforcement that, for example, “yellow is the power company.”How it works at a recycler:
Prompts employee to take a second glance and report itPros:
- Highly visible (unless thief scrapes or burns it off)
- No definitive, physical proof of ownership
- Does not prevent theft
DataDots are tiny microscopic discs that contain unique identification data visible with a UV light and magnifying glass. As small as a grain of sand, data dots are applied to a surface by brushing or spraying.How it works at a recycler:
Scrap metal comes in for recycling, and must be thoroughly checked with a black light to confirm presence of DataDots. Employee enters information into the DataBaseDNA site to confirm ownership, and contacts law enforcement if there’s not a match.Pros:
- Virtually undetectable when applied correctly
- Ownership data is maintained in a single, secure location
- Difficult to remove all of the markers through normal means
COPPER CLAD STEEL:
- Virtually undetectable without a black light and magnifying glass
- Wiring may only be marked in a single area and be overlooked
- Can be removed through burning or long-term exposure
Copper clad steel is steel core covered in thin layer of copper and is primarily used as a less expensive utility grounding wire.How it works at a recycler:
Steel is magnetic, so holding a magnet to suspected copper-clad steel reveals whether the core is steel or, in fact, solid copper.Pros:
- Nearly the same conductivity as solid copper
- More cost-effective for utilities
- Less scrap value
- Looks like solid copper, so thieves may still cut it out, even if they don’t take it
- Does not prevent theft
Video recording devices used in substations and other high-value asset areas record activity when sensors are tripped.How it works at a recycler:
Recycler has to be notified of the theft and be on the lookout for the suspects in the camera footage.Pros:
- Video evidence for prosecution
- Security and law enforcement can be instantly alerted to activity
- Lower cost than 24/7 physical security presence
TRACEABLE COPPER CONDUIT:
- Can be difficult to positively ID a person if there’s not a good camera angle or poor resolution
- High initial cost and diminished lifetime when used in substations
- Often does not prevent theft
A new technology uses copper conductor that is laser etched with unique, owner-specific serial codes that can be traced through a web-based database that stores purchase records.How it works at recycler:
Recyclers can identify the owner of the conductor by entering the codes etched on the center strand of the wire through an online database or free smartphone app.Pros:
- Web-based system indicates the rightful owner within seconds
- Proof of ownership strengthens chances of conviction
- Unique “candy stripe” design makes it easily identifiable to recyclers and would-be thieves, who may avoid taking a chance on the traceable wire.
- Requires investment in new wire and human resources to maintain online purchase records
- Recyclers must be trained in recognizing the traceable wire and confirming ownership using the online database
Recycling Industry Takes Leadership Role
The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), a Washington, DC-based advocacy group represents more than 1,700 manufacturers and processors, brokers, and industrial consumers of scrap commodities, including ferrous and nonferrous metals, paper, electronics, rubber, plastics, glass, and textiles.Among several initiatives is ISRI’s ScrapTheftAlert.com, a network that quickly spreads the word on copper thefts in the United States and Canada. Alerts are broadcast to email subscribers within a 100-mile radius of the theft location.Stopping thieves without harming legal scrap metal sales is a delicate balance. The ISRI works nationally to advocate for the legal scrap recycling industry that supports good-paying jobs and billions in economic activity. At the same time, it is working to dismantle the underground trade of stolen wire through legislation, awareness, and effective deterrents.One ISRA partner is Southwire Corporation, which operates the website EndCopperTheft.com as a community platform for recyclers, law enforcement, and local taskforces to work together on the problem.Challenges
- Volume of scrap (of all types)
- No time to validate it was all acquired legally
- Untrained eyes
- Scale operators don’t know uses of one gauge copper from another
- Some copper wire is legitimately recycled – how to tell the difference?
- Need way to visually identify potential stolen copper quickly and easily
- #1 Copper (Bare Bright)
- #2 Copper
- Once the recycler accepts the scrap and pays the seller, there’s no recourse
Law Enforcement Challenges:
Web-based Tracking SystemHow it works
- Making the case: Need physical proof
- Sales records
- Foot markers
- Anything to prove person/company is rightful owner in court
- Spreading the word
- 6 weeks – 4 months for word of theft-deterrent product to make its way around to thieves
- Legislative support
- In most states, theft is only a property crime
- Legislation beginning to change to felony crime
Visit www.2IDCU.com online or access the database on the mobile app
Center strand contains laser-etched codes that are unique to each foot of cable
Recyclers can identify the owner of the conductor within seconds by entering the codes etched on the center strand
Security/law enforcement are notified to apprehend thief
Proof of ownership provides evidence required for prosecution
For more information on Proof Positive Copper, contact Fernando Baldizon HERE
To see the original article, visit Electricity Forum
- Whitney Agan