Copper: The New Theft Material of Choice

Thieves striking construction projects, industrial facilities with copper supplies

Farnsworth Homes hired a nighttime security officer for Sunland Springs Village after copper was taken from 17 homes in June, Jestes said.

But it is a campaign that brings builders, police and scrap yards together that has many optimistic about putting a dent in the crime trend.

Koliboski said homebuilders are being urged to paint their copper pipes and wires, and scrap yards are being asked to look for the marked copper, which is no longer worth as much as the unpainted copper that recyclers seek.

In late September, Farnsworth Homes began painting its copper pipes yellow -- a color only used by the building company. So far, seven other homebuilders are on board with the campaign.

"We don't think we can stop it," Jestes said about the crime. "We think we can really put a dent in it."

Koliboski is working with scrap yards such as Arizona Recycling Corp., 12 W. Southern Ave. in Mesa, on the copper-painting campaign and his goal to stop the theft of the metal.

As the detective walked through a garage and side room filled with thousands of dollars of copper pipes and wires, he pointed to material he said is suspicious -- lengthy copper that is bright and shiny.

A barrel was filled with 200 pounds of copper tubing brought on Sept. 9 from Miami, Ariz.

"This is usable, not only a usable quantity, but it's brandnew metal," Koliboski said. "Why would someone turn in 200 pounds of brand-new metal when it's usable? Obviously, it's stolen from somewhere."

A piece of paper attached to the copper denotes information about the seller. When a person brings the metal to a recycler, the individual has to provide a valid identification with a name and address. Rey Hernandez, manager of Arizona Recycling, said he also writes down the person's license plate number.

While scrap yards such as this one continue to try to operate their businesses and bring in metal, they also are reporting suspicious copper to police.

"When it's new-looking stuff, I feel like not to buy it," Hernandez said. "At the same time, some of the detectives told me, 'If you don't buy it then we cannot catch the guys.' "

Hernandez said he now checks for painted copper. At the end of each day he also faxes an inventory to police.

"Whether I think it's stolen or not, I still got to follow the rules," Hernandez said. "Even when they bring me little small pieces and stuff like that, I still got to do the same thing."

Officials admit their measures aren't a stopgap. And the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona fears the trend won't end until copper prices decline.

"Unfortunately, it might take a significant drop in copper prices to curtail this," Barnett said. "Nevertheless, we feel like it's a battle worth fighting."

Copyright (c) 2006, The Tribune, Mesa, Ariz. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.

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