Fighting the copper theft epidemic

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


"The biggest challenge is the size of our physical footprint, which includes hundreds of thousands of miles of network, as well as hundreds of buildings and other facilities, across 22 states. We've been working closely with law enforcement across the country to help educate them on the issue and assist in identification and prosecution of the criminals," he said. "We've also employed remote video monitoring at our locations to identify copper thieves and have begun coding the materials to aid in identification. And we're working with the recycling industry."

Despite their best efforts, however, Pacholczyk said that it seems like the criminals stay one step ahead of them saying

"But this is like a game of whack-a-mole," he said. "Whenever we stop the thieves on one front, they find a way to do something else."

Video solutions for copper theft

Keith Jentoft, president of RSI Video Technologies, feels that the security industry as whole has let consumers down when it comes to developing solutions for copper theft, even comparing it at one point with an ostrich.

The security industry, said Jentoft, "has had their head in the sand."

"The reason is that it's a very difficult problem to address because most copper thefts are in remote locations," Jentoft explained. "Often times there's no power, for sure no broadband, no telephone or any other communication, so it's very difficult to go put in a solution that works. Therefore, they ignored it because they didn't see any potential to make money on it."

Jentoft, who has done extensive research on copper theft and even has a company Web site dedicated to the issue, www.coppertheft.info, also said that there is a strong link between copper thefts and organized crime groups.

"There's a whole subculture now that's been trained on where copper is and how to steal it," he said. "The fact that the economy is getting tight and copper is getting more expensive makes the problem something that grows."

Indeed, Jentoft is right that there may be a developing criminal subculture for copper thefts. The December 2007 issue of the American Recycler newspaper reported that a criminal organization tied to a Canadian branch of the Hell's Angels was recently found to be one of three groups connected to an industrial copper theft ring in Quebec. The groups were reportedly involved in more than 250 thefts from 12 different Hydro Quebec electric plants and some other private businesses since 2006. The total value of the metal stolen was $2.5 million.

According to Jentoft, the copper theft epidemic has also begun to plague cities infrastructures as thieves pilfer schools, airports and gas lines for even trace amounts of copper pipe or wire.

RSI's solution, Videofied, is a totally wireless video system that detects motion at locations where copper maybe targeted. The camera records a 10 second video, which is subsequently sent to a central monitoring station where a dispatcher can notify authorities to any suspicious activity.

Jentoft said that Videofied has been implemented by major cell phone companies to protect their cell towers, large electric utilities, residential and commercial builders, as well as supermarkets and restaurants, whose air conditioning units thieves have started targeting for their copper components.

Outside of a few "high-end" applications, Jentoft said that it's just not economically feasible for companies to install CCTV systems.

"No one's going to pay mega dollars for a CCTV system in every substation. It just won't happen; they can't afford it," he said.

Unlike a CCTV system that could run a business tens of thousands of dollars. A basic Videofied system, which includes two outdoor cameras, cell based panel and a key pad retails for $2,800. Up to 24 cameras can be placed on one system, according to the RSI president.

"The repair costs are tens of times more expensive. ... You might lose $300 [worth of copper] from a cell tower and have a $5,000 to $7,000 bill just to repair it and that's when there's no lightning. Because they steal the grounding structure, if you get a lightning hit to the cell tower which happens quite often, you lose $250,000 worth of switching equipment," Jentoft said. "You can't just sit back and absorb the theft and say 'Oh well.' It affects you too many ways and it's very expensive."