Fighting the copper theft epidemic

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

Recyclers, however, are not without other tools to help them keep track of suspected criminals.

Ken Gruber, founder and president of Transact Payments Systems, has developed JPEGer, a software solution that aids the scrap metal industry in keeping track of those persons who have obtained metal through nefarious means.

Originally developed to audit internal fraud, JPEGer has become a solution that recyclers can implement to cut down on time employees lose dealing with authorities tracking down information and images of suspected metal thieves.

"Recycler's are becoming more and more engaged with police departments just because of the rise in price of copper and other non-ferrous metals. The time it takes to pull together standard video clips just takes forever; nobody really has a chance to look at video," Gruber said.

Every time a transaction takes place at a scrap metal yard, whether a weight is taken off a scale or someone is paid for their recycled metal, JPEGer takes a photograph and stores the images on a database for easy access. Gruber said that JPEGer interfaces with a Milestone digital management and recording solution so all of the video and photographic evidence can be easily obtained by police.

There are currently 250 JPEGer users nationwide, according to Gruber. The software license to use JPEGer costs $3,000.

"A lot of the legislation and stuff requires video, Gruber said. "The problem is, video is so cumbersome and large, I think the main point is that when we can create an interface with the scale that were saving the important image, it just creates a much easier auditing tool. Usually they find the problem -- the criminal -- in JPEGer and the video backs it up."

Oliveira said that they take over 60,000 images day with JPEGer and indicated that it has helped them meet the storage length requirements that many municipalities place on the photographs, some of which are as long as five years.

While copper remains the top choice among metal thieves, Oliveira said that aluminum and brass run a close second and third respectively.

Desperate to get their hands on metal wherever they can find it, thieves have even begun stealing pieces of artwork from public parks. According to a recent story in the Philadelphia Enquirer, outdoor sculptures, including a 5 and 1/2-foot statue of Sacagawea at the Lewis and Clark National Historic Park in Oregon, have been stolen and sold as scrap.

In the case of the stolen Sacagawea sculpture, pieces of the statue were sold to one recycler for a little more than $500. The statue itself was worth an estimated $20,000, according to the article.

In addition to the safety issues that copper theft has created at electric substations, there have been numerous media reports regarding the theft of metal and how it has resulted in the explosion of homes after an unwitting culprit accidentally knocked a whole in a gas line. Fire officials in California have also reported seeing vital fire sprinkler system parts being stolen and sold for scrap.

The law enforcement push

"It's going to continue," said Officer Don Hawkins, of the Fort Worth Police Department, who also serves as member on the board of the International Association of Property Crime Investigators.

Hawkins said that Texas law enforcement officials are working with state legislators to try and increase the penalties for scrap metal theft and that strict state law, along with strong city ordinances is how they try to combat the problem in Fort Worth.

According to Hawkins, the state recently changed its penal code to make the theft of copper wiring a felony.

"We would like to have (theft of) some of the other regulated materials (aluminum, bronze and brass) to be felonies because there is so much of this going on right now," he said. "I feel right now we need to be more strict on it, but we're not. The longer time that it takes for that to happen, the more and more we're going to see this problem occurring out here."