Fighting the Copper Theft Epidemic

Oct. 27, 2008
Utility, telecom and construction industries look for security solutions

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 per pound to more than $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. Despite the severity of the copper theft problem, no federal or state agency has yet to gather statistical data on the crime. The common opinion, however, is that utility companies, along with various home and commercial builders, have been some of the hardest hit industries by the copper theft epidemic.

“Anywhere they can find copper, they’re taking it,” says Jeff Wilson, a spokesman for Georgia Power, who adds that losses due to copper theft have increased more than 350 percent in the past two years.
“It’s coming off poles, it’s coming off transformers, it’s coming off of construction sites, just anywhere it’s at,” adds Philip Peacock, investigations supervisor for Georgia Power. Peacock says the perpetrators are predominantly removing the grounding copper wire from their substations.

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.

“Last year, we had more than 2,200 copper cable thefts — several hundred of which were service-affecting,” he says. “Every outage caused by copper theft has left customers and communities isolated and possibly vulnerable in an emergency.”

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,” Pacholczyk says. “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.
“We have also employed remote video monitoring at our locations to identify copper thieves and have begun coding the materials to aid in identification,” Pacholczyk continues. “And we’re working with the recycling industry.”

Video Solutions
Keith Jentoft, president of RSI Video Technologies (, says that the security industry as whole has let consumers down when it comes to developing solutions for copper theft, going so far as to say the security industry “has had its 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 explains. “Oftentimes 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.”

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 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.

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 keypad retails for $2,800. Up to 24 cameras can be placed on one system, according to the RSI president.

Another video surveillance company applying its solutions tosolve the copper theft issue is video analytics provider Arteco Vision Systems. Arteco’s Intelligent Video System (IVS) uses surveillance cameras to create a “virtual perimeter” around a given location, according to Steve Birkmeier, Arteco’s vice president.

Birkmeier says they generally use around four to six surveillance cameras at a facility to create this virtual perimeter, which is usually about five to 10 feet off the fence line. After that perimeter is established, the IVS is tuned to filter out objects other than people. “You’re not looking for the dog or perhaps the deer that may wander up to the fence line — what we’re looking for is something the shape, size and orientation of a person,” Birkmeier says. “Once that gets into the zone, it triggers an alert.”

A video of the suspected metal thief is subsequently sent to a monitoring station where someone verifies whether or not the intruder is a human and then responds appropriately. As with Jentoft, Birkmeier said that the development of copper theft solutions has come mainly from the requests of consumers, who are desperately seeking a way to reduce their losses
“For the large part, this is much more customer-driven than industry-driven,” he says. “This is something we’re hearing more from the consultants’ side, who are dealing with the utilities, who have really just come to a point of frustration on how (they) can deal with this.”

Securing the recyclers
Though they are often pointed to by law enforcement officials and others as being part of the problem, metal theft has also negatively impacted recyclers. According to Mike Oliveira, director of information and systems technology for the David J. Joseph Company, which operates more than 50 scrap recycling facilities across the country, copper theft has cost them tremendously in man hours and security purchases.

“All of the municipalities in which we have our facilities in, there’s been a lot of pressure from local police to crack down on non-ferrous metal theft, Oliveira says. “What’s come out of that is, basically, you’ve got a lot people who are stealing various pieces of metal from different places, maybe from parks, businesses or wherever. The police have to research those incidents and find out where the metal went.”

Oliveira estimated that the company loses a total of between four and six hours of productivity from employees per week at each recycling facility due to the amount of time it takes for them to work with police to track down suspected thieves. That pales in comparison, however to the amount of security upgrades they’ve had to make.

“Really the cost has been in implementing all of the technology,” he said. “We’ve bought fingerprint devices, we’ve bought signature capture and we’ve put in a host of cameras.”

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. 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 says 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.

Law Enforcement Push
“It’s going to continue,” says 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, adding that strict state laws and city ordinances are used to combat the problem in Fort Worth.

“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,” Hawkins says. “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.”

Hawkins indicated that most of the people they arrest for metal theft are repeat offenders, but he said if Texas and other states do not start imposing stricter laws that more people are going to begin resorting to the crime.

Joel Griffin is assistant editor for This story is excerpted — to read the full copper theft story, please visit