Copper prices spark new crime wave

By Paul Stathis, Editor
Friday, 11 January, 2008

The increasing price of copper cable over the past few years may have caused members of the electrical industry to feel like the victims of crime, but it seems that the surge in copper prices has caused real crime to flourish in unexpected areas - the theft of copper for scrap.

Last year, police all over the world were inundated with reports of theft of copper from areas as diverse as water pipes from buildings, electrical wiring from substations, conductors from railway lines and even bells from churches. Here are a few examples:

  • In Canberra, over $150,000 of copper cable and water piping was stolen from one construction site, with another $30,000 of electrical wiring stolen from another building site nearby.
  • In Victoria, a bronze bell and copper guttering was stolen from a church, while thieves stole copper cabling from several railway lines, causing chaos for commuters.

Thankfully, many of these criminals are caught.

  • In Adelaide, a man was jailed for 11 months for breaking into a sub-station and stealing copper wire valued at about $1500.
  • In NSW, police charged three men over the theft of $18,000 worth of copper wire from an electricity depot.
  • In the Northern Territory, police arrested four people in relation to the theft of 1.5 tonnes of copper wire, which was seized from a property along with drugs and guns.
  • In Victoria, a man was jailed for 31 months for several offences involving the theft of substantial amounts of copper wire, pipes and scrap.

Similar crimes are being carried out in the US.

  • A New Jersey electrical wholesaler was scammed by a man into supplying him with electrical wire, charged to an unsuspecting electrical contractor's account, which he later sold for scrap.
  • In Indiana, two tonnes of copper wire, valued at US$56,000, was stolen from a storage area of another electrical wholesaler.
  • In Hawaii, thieves stole almost 10 km of copper wiring from lighting along a freeway.

In November, the Herald Sun reported that 13 people were arrested in France for stealing and trafficking 40 tonnes of copper from telecommunications cable networks; and quoted British police as saying that "statistics for copper theft in Britain almost precisely match the graph for the commodity's market price", and British transport police as saying it was their "biggest challenge after terrorism".

As I researched these and other reports, it seemed like copper was some new type of narcotic. In one report, a Victorian police officer stated in court that the defendant was "found in possession of 500 kg of cable and 100 kg of copper piping". Sounds like a large haul of drugs, doesn't it. It comes as no surprise, considering the commodity price of copper has skyrocketed over recent years and criminals recognise its high value and easy accessibility.

But authorities are taking tough new measures to combat this new wave of crime. Police around Australia are urging people who may have witnessed such crimes to call Crime Stoppers with information.

In NSW, a joint Crime Stoppers and Utilities Security Committee campaign launched last December to help prevent the crime.

Under the SA Electricity Act, thieves face up to two years jail or $10,000 fine for breaking into a sub-station and interfering with electricity infrastructure. ETSA Utilities acting manager services Sandro Canale said the penalties send a warning to would-be thieves: "The courts will not tolerate these dangerous acts. Breaking into a sub-station and tampering with our assets is not only foolhardy but potentially lethal. Thieves also risk the lives of ETSA employees who enter sub-stations to repair the damage and the lives of curious children who may enter the site through a cut fence. ETSA is taking the issue extremely seriously and is spending $1 million upgrading security on its sites."

The Energy Networks Association (ENA) reported in a recent newsletter of an innovative step taken by energy supplier Alinta to tackle the theft of copper cable, strap and busbar, introducing 'DataDot DNA' identification that allows every piece of copper to be identifiable back to the lawful owner. This is part of an overall program to curb theft which includes DataDots embedded on all metals in zone substations, all equipment in depots, all employees' personal tools and all vehicles.

The system deploys thousands of microchips encoded with the company's name and identification number sprayed throughout the length of copper cable or busbar. DataDots are not visible to the naked eye but are detectable using an ultraviolet or black-light torch.

As a deterrent, Alinta has posted warning signs around the perimeter fence of its depots and zone substations outlining that the copper cable is traceable by law enforcement officers. Security has also been upgraded with perimeter fencing, lighting and CCTV surveillance.

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