Thieves Turn Copper Theft into Gold

CopperIn California, thieves shut down numerous Web sites operated by state agencies when they ripped copper wire from a mile-long stretch of highway. In Illinois, a man was electrocuted as he attempted to steal copper wire from a live line. In Washington State, copper thefts near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport disabled the approach lighting for one of the airport’s runways.

After a rash of copper thefts from trucks carrying copper along Virginia highways, authorities in Virginia, working with NICB special agents, arrested a man at the center of the Virginia thefts.

All across the country copper thefts are making the news day after day and, in many areas, they are reaching epidemic proportions. As the market for copper fluctuates, so does the theft activity and in recent times copper has been worth the risk.

In some cases, the crimes are committed by drug addicts looking to get some quick cash. In other cases, the crimes are committed by organized groups or opportunistic thieves, such as employees of businesses that work with metal. Regardless of the motive, the damage caused by such thefts is often several times the value of the metal stolen, leaving the victims with hefty repair costs which are then often passed on to insurance companies.

The U.S. Department of Energy has estimated that metal theft costs U.S. businesses around $1 billion a year. Some states and cities have taken measures to combat metal theft, such as requiring scrap yards to check identification of any individual who sells them scrap metal, note the license plate of the vehicle used to transport the metal, maintain the information on file, pay the seller with check instead of cash, or retain the scrap metal for a designated amount of time to allow law enforcement an opportunity to identify stolen materials before it is recycled.

However, identifying stolen metal is not always possible and opposition to these laws from the scrap industry has made it difficult to get effective measures passed in some areas. Even in areas where such laws exist, some unscrupulous scrap dealers do not abide by them and enforcement of the laws has not always been a major priority until recent years when increases in metal thefts brought more attention to the problem. Some states and local governments have increased the penalties associated with metal theft, or are charging thieves with additional crimes if the theft caused damage to infrastructure or created a hazard to the public.

From January 1, 2010 through December 31, 2012, NICB analysts identified 33,775 insurance claims for the theft of copper, bronze, brass or aluminum—32,568 of them (96 percent) for copper alone. This shows a 36 percent increase in claims when compared with the 25,083 claims reported between Jan. 1, 2009, and Dec. 31, 2011.

Ohio ranks first among the top five states with the most insurance claims for metal thefts followed by, in order, Texas, Georgia, California, and North Carolina.

Although communities are cracking down on copper thefts, it remains a significant problem across the nation. Hopefully, with enhanced awareness and reporting of suspicious activity, ordinary citizens will help reduce these thefts.

Winners & Losers

By the time the authorities are knocking on their door, it’s too late. As they’re led out of their homes or offices, a thousand things must go through their minds. It’s the father who gets arrested in front of his son. It’s the sixty-something year old doctor who might possibly spend the last days of his life in jail. But before getting to this point, maybe the prospect of going to jail wasn’t enough of a deterrent. Maybe even the potential of being arrested in front of their families, friends, or coworkers didn’t weigh heavy enough upon them to dissuade them from making a very bad choice. But at some point, a rationale person would have to stop and think about the consequences of being caught.

The fight against insurance fraud is an ongoing battle with schemes becoming more and more elaborate every day. The opponents in this epic battle are law enforcement and the insurance industry facing off against anyone and everyone who engages in fraud. And sometimes watching the sides go back and forth can be a dizzying experience. With so many new schemes emerging on a daily basis, it’s often challenging to keep score of whose winning and losing.

Clearly those who perpetrate these schemes put a lot of time, thought and energy into them. If only that same time, thought and energy were used to help others rather than commit crimes. A recent alleged scheme involved restaurant employees who used a device to skim account information from the credit cards of their customers. The information was reportedly transferred to a new physical credit card and used to rack up fraudulent charges. Another alleged scheme involved an organized ring of more than 100 people including doctors, nurses and other medical professionals who may have defrauded the Medicare system out of $452 million through false billing. In both cases, the perpetrators were caught, charged and now facing possible conviction. Despite all the news about other fraud perpetrators being caught and convicted, here again maybe the message “It’s not worth it” just didn’t hit home.

Regardless of whether one person engages in a scheme or an organized crime ring perpetrates a series of schemes, fraud is fraud and sooner or later, those who commit these crimes will be caught. It’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when. From the person who pads their claim to get a little extra money to the doctor who bills for services not rendered, it all equates to a multi-billion dollar problem. And it’s a problem in which we’re all victims because we all pay the costs.