Fighting the copper theft epidemic

Businesses seek solutions from the security industry for an ever-increasing problem

The growing economies of India and China have created a large demand for copper and other non-ferrous metals over the past several years. Combine that with a weakening dollar and the price of copper has skyrocketed over the past eight years from about 80 cents a pound to over $3.50 per pound.

The dramatic increase in copper prices has not gone unnoticed by criminals and preventing copper theft has become one of the biggest contemporary challenges facing businesses worldwide.

Utility companies, along with various home and commercial builders, have been some of the hardest hit industries by the copper theft epidemic.

According to Jeff Wilson, a spokesman for Georgia Power, losses due to copper theft have increased more than 350 percent in the past two years.

"Anywhere they can find copper, they're taking it," he said.

"It's coming off poles, it's coming off transformers, it's coming off of construction sites, just anywhere it's at," added Philip Peacock, investigations supervisor for Georgia Power.

In addition to the financial impact, Wilson said that the thefts also jeopardize the safety of company employees, as well as others.

"Obviously, it's an ongoing concern for us. Not only is there a financial impact, but there is also a significant safety impact as well," he said. "Our employees who work in substations have safety training and they're required to wear all the protective equipment and take the necessary safety precautions. The people who are breaking into facilities and that type of thing, safety is not really a concern for them."

Peacock said the perpetrators are predominantly removing the grounding copper wire from their substations, which subsequently creates a dangerous working environment.

"Whenever they do that they make it unsafe for anyone who's around it," he said.

The company has begun replacing copper wire with steel-clad wire in various locations throughout the state to help reduce thefts, according to Wilson. Georgia Power has also started marking their wire to make it easily identifiable to recyclers.

The biggest challenge in combating the problem, according to Peacock, is that being such a large utility company, they have numerous locations spread out across Georgia. Peacock said that they keep all of their facilities locked and lit up at night, but that sometimes isn't enough to ward off brazen thieves.

Another industry plagued by frequent thefts of copper has been telecommunications where infrastructure and service providers like AT&T are being affected dramatically. AT&T alone recorded nearly $6.7 million in copper theft damages in 2007, according to Dave Pacholczyk, a spokesman for the company.

"The real issue is the effect on our customers and our communities," Pacholczyk said. "Last year, we had more than 2,200 copper cable thefts, several hundred of which were service-affecting. Every outage caused by copper theft has left customers and communities isolated and possibly vulnerable in an emergency."

Starting in late 2005, Pacholczyk said that they began to see an upswing in thefts as the price of copper climbed. So far in 2008, he indicated that the numbers of thefts are currently outpacing last years' figures.

Thieves commonly target the utility's aerial cable, as well as other sources of copper that are found throughout the company's buildings and facilities.

"This is a multi-million dollar nuisance, and costs us far more than the thieves ever get for the copper," the AT&T spokesman said. "But beyond the damage it causes to our network and the cost to fix it, the criminals are disrupting and threatening the lives of our customers and the safety of our communities. We can't put a price on that."

As with Georgia Power, Pacholczyk said that it's difficult for AT&T to secure all of its copper resources given the vast size of the company.

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