To curtail the copper capers and visits from the midnight plumbers, Jim Evans has taken his most vulnerable air conditioners into protective custody.
Thieves have gutted compressors and stolen pipes so persistently from the homes Evans manages with Fountain City Realty in Columbus that he has changed the way he does business. He invariably replaces plundered plumbing with less lucrative PVC piping. And when a property in a high-crime area becomes vacant, he pays maintenance to disconnect the air conditioner and place it in storage.
“It’s a foregone conclusion that if that thing stays there for more than a couple of days, it will be stripped,” said Evans, adding his company spent more than $100,000 over the past year on repairs to theft-related damage. “I’ve been in this business a long time -- 30 years -- and I have never seen anything like we’re witnessing now.”
As copper prices soared to record highs in recent weeks, law enforcement officials around the Chattahoochee Valley have scrambled to contain a fresh wave of thefts and burglaries related to the increasingly valuable metal.
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The rising resale value of copper has attracted criminals -- often drug addicts -- looking to fence the metal for quick cash.
‘Pretty much constant’
In Fort Mitchell, Russell County sheriff’s officials increased patrols after a group of thieves in a single night ripped the copper wiring out of 10 houses under construction. In Troup County, authorities last week were investigating the theft of three metal bus bars and about 200 feet of copper wiring from an AT&T cell phone tower.
Phenix City police counted 35 copper-related thefts in January and February, an increase over previous two-month periods, Capt. Frank Ivey said. Muscogee County school officials are encaging some air-conditioning units to deter further thefts, a district spokeswoman said.
Churches on both sides of the river have reported copper-related thefts. And in south Columbus, police last week said someone stole copper piping and air-conditioner coils from a home, leaving the owners a $12,000 bill to replace damaged Sheetrock and light fixtures.
“It’s pretty much constant,” said Sgt. Joe Weatherford of the Columbus Police Department. “It’s so widespread it’s really difficult to tackle.”
Law enforcement officials attributed the resurgence to exponential increases in copper prices. The metal topped $4 per pound in 2008 before plummeting during the recession. But copper has thrived in recent months -- due in part to explosive economic growth in China and other emerging countries -- and climbed as high as $4.50 per pound in recent weeks.
The metal had been valued at less than $1 per pound in 2001.
Still, copper heists typically involve a great deal of risky work that may yield only a few hundred dollars worth of loot. A recent theft on the roof of Viva El Toro on Macon Road in Columbus netted a couple hundred dollars at most, but caused $15,000 in damage and left the Mexican restaurant without a working air conditioner, owner Canlice Wang said.
“Even with it being up, it takes hundreds of pounds to make any money off it,” Russell County Sheriff Heath Taylor said. “You’ve just got to have boatloads of it.”
Drug addiction -- particularly crystal methamphetamine -- is a common denominator in most copper thefts, authorities said. In Columbus, police once discovered and dismantled a drug house that traded copper and other metals for narcotics.
“I was really surprised by that one,” Weatherford said.
Tough to track
Copper theft presents myriad challenges for investigators and prosecutors. Unlike a flat-screen television or automobile, the metal generally lacks any identifier, leaving law enforcement few leads when it disappears. Once taken to a scrap yard, the metal can be impossible to distinguish from legitimately recycled copper.
“There are proof issues, which is true of every case, but they are more problematic sometimes with copper theft,” said Ken Davis, the Russell County district attorney. “Very often what you’re talking about is unidentifiable electrical wire or conduit and things of that kind. Their defense very often is, ‘I found it on the side of the road.’”
Residences aren’t the only place thieves are finding copper. Utility companies around the country have also taken a big hit, though a U.S. Department of Energy report released in October found the rate of thefts at electric utilities has been significantly reduced since 2008. The report attributed the decrease to public-awareness campaigns and a combined effort from electric utilities, law enforcement and metal recyclers.
But as the price of copper rises, electric utilities are being targeted anew. Georgia Power in January increased from $500 to $3,000 the reward it offers for information leading to an arrest and conviction of thieves who pillage its utilities.
“We’re continuing to see the trend of people risking their life and limbs in order to steal copper,” said Konswello Monroe, a Georgia Power spokeswoman.
Monroe said the company recently began replacing its copper with less valuable steel-clad wire to avert theft.
Lawmen said they are better equipped to handle copper thefts today due to new laws and cooperation among recyclers and law enforcement agencies. After a spike of copper thefts in 2008, many states, including Georgia and Alabama, passed legislation aimed at curbing the resale of illegally procured metals.
Metal recyclers are now required to scan a photo ID of anyone selling copper and record the tag number of the vehicle in which they delivered it. Recyclers also have installed surveillance cameras that utilize time stamps to track transactions.
“We use reasonable common sense,” said Mark Kamensky, president of E.J. Knight Scrap Material Co. in Columbus. “If material comes in that is obviously suspicious, stolen or marked, we record the tag number and the information, and we contact appropriate law enforcement.”
Joe Bulat, director of security at Schnitzer Southeast and a member of the Southeast Metal Task Force, said residents can take simple steps to safeguard against copper theft.
“People have got to take accountability,” said Bulat, a former Atlanta police officer. “You can take something as simple as a can of spray paint and mark an ‘X’ on your air conditioning coils. Guess what, (the thieves) are going to go to the one that doesn’t have the ‘X.’”