Copper Theft on the Rise

Protect your property from this dangerous crime.

It’s one of the fastest growing crimes in the country, and it’s not what you might expect. When your air conditioning unit is stolen, it’s not for the unit, but for its copper coils and pipes that thieves can sell to recycling companies and scrap yards.

According to statistics from the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which tracks incidents of copper, aluminum, nickel, stainless steel and scrap iron theft, 25,083 claims were filed from 2009 to 2012, an 81 percent increase compared to their 2008 report. In fact, the Department of Energy says copper theft alone causes nearly $1 billion in losses to U.S. businesses each year; 96 percent of claims in recent years have been for copper theft.

Copper theft is lucrative enough that thieves will look for it anywhere: electrical power stations, vacant or foreclosed homes, even construction sites. (On a Utah highway, thieves recently managed to take six miles of copper wire.) And while it would seem that metal theft would slow after the recession and the rise in commodity prices eased, experts say that has not been the case. In fact, the demand for copper from developing nations such as China and India is creating an increasing international copper trade that thieves are exploiting, the FBI reports. Copper is particularly valuable as scrap because it is used for everything from plumbing to electronics.

Danger of metal theft 
Metal thievery isn’t just inconvenient, it’s also dangerous. According to a brief prepared by the FBI Criminal Intelligence Section, thefts have also resulted in: The failure of five tornado sirens in the Jackson, Miss. area to warn residents of an approaching tornado, because copper thieves stripped the sirens’ copper wiring; and $10 million in losses experienced by farmers in Pinal County, Ariz. when copper thieves stripped their irrigation wells and pumps.

States including California, Nevada, Kansas and Washington have passed laws to crack down on the theft by mandating that recycling yards record copper purchases and codify copper materials with serial numbers for tracking, but tightening the restrictions on scrap dealers doesn’t necessarily solve the problem.

Protect your property 
“We have long recognized the vulnerability of construction sites to theft and vandalism,” says James King, field technical manager in CPI appraisal and loss prevention at Chubb. “We provide our clients with a comprehensive checklist of loss prevention tips, recognizing that our target market homes tend to make extensive use of copper in plumbing, wiring, gutters and roof flashings.”

To that extent, homeowners can take the same precautions as business owners do to protect the metal around their property. At high-value sites, King’s team also recommends security guards on-site to act as deterrents. Scott Spencer, Chubb’s worldwide appraisal manager, suggests these other precautions around your home:

  • Increase or consider motion-activated lighting outside your home and include lighting on fixtures like AC units.
  • Consider a locking air conditioner cage that will protect your compressor.
  • Secure any equipment you might use in your garage or in an outbuilding where possible, and use a perimeter security system with motion detectors.
  • Mark any metals around your property with your name or another identifier using engraving equipment.
  • Make sure that access to under your home, where copper piping is typically run, is secure. This is especially important in seasonal and elevated homes.
  • Remove trees or ladders that thieves could use to gain access to your home, and trim or install lighting around landscaping that could allow criminals to hide around your property.
  • Speak to your insurance agent to make sure you have adequate insurance for metal theft. Consider taking a visual inventory of the exterior of your property, much as you would for valuables you keep inside your home.