Law Enforcement’s Response To Metal Theft In The Next One To Two Years

Law Enforcement Team

Analysts:

Chad Los Schumacher

Shawn Ruminski

Peter O’Malley


About This Document:

This report was prepared as a part of a greater assessment of the implications strategic minerals and rare earths have on law enforcement over the next three to five years. Professor Kristan Wheaton tasked Chad Los Schumacher, Peter O’Malley, and Shawn Ruminski with this investigation focusing on law enforcement. All research was conducted 5 October to 10 October 2012 at the Institute for Intelligence Studies at Mercyhurst University.

The question chosen and answered by the team is as follows:

What measures could be taken to reduce the frequency of metal theft cases in the United States in the next one to two years?

Law enforcement in the United States faces a unique challenge when addressing strategic minerals and rare earths, as the focus is not primarily on the mineral or rare earth itself, but rather on the products created from these minerals and rare earths. Critical infrastructure, car parts, computers, and national defense items all contain minerals and rare earths and the security of these items fall under law enforcement’s concern. For this report, the analysts focused on metal theft, such as that of platinum from catalytic converters on cars and copper from wires and piping used in critical infrastructure. Analysts investigated legal measures on all levels of government and current policing tactics to help address metal theft across the United States.  The sources used to complete this report range from moderate to high, and the overall analytic confidence for this report is moderate. 


Key Findings:

Due to an increasing amount of metal theft fueled by rising metal prices, it is likely that law enforcement across the United States will take action to reduce the problem by enacting laws which grant more power to law enforcement agencies and prosecutors, while increasing regulations on scrap yards. Improved legislation and powers granted to law enforcement, combined with education and cooperation with businesses and the public, will likely curtail the overall amount of metal theft. However, it is unlikely to solve the issue, as the practice will likely move underground to an increasingly organized black market, localized in metal theft rings.

Abbreviated Dissents - There are no dissents over any aspect of this report.


Table Of Contents:


Increased Legislation And Cooperation Between Public And Private Sectors Likely Needed To Curtail Metal Theft In The Next 1-2 Years

Executive Summary:

Theft of scrap metal provides an excellent opportunity for thieves because it is a low risk and high reward crime. Law enforcement efforts to curb this threat will likely focus on simultaneously increasing the risk and decreasing the payoffs for offenders. Depending upon developments and strategies implemented at all levels of government, it is likely that metal theft on the whole will decrease in the next one to two years.

Discussion:

Law enforcement addresses crimes by raising the stakes for perpetrators. In the case of metal thieves, this involves increasing the risk of committing theft and reducing the rewards. In order to increase the risk, law enforcement will incorporate holistic techniques, addressing both the theft and the resale of stolen metal on all government levels, starting with the federal level.

Due to a lack of regulation on scrap yards and inadequate criminal charges, it is likely that a federal law would curtail the growing metal theft epidemic. With strict federal regulations and the creation of a special felony charge for metal theft, it is likely that scrap yards would work harder to not purchase stolen metals and metal thieves would be greatly deterred by more severe punishments.

Efforts by legislators to curtail metal theft through new laws at all levels of government are likely to be moderately successful. However, there is a chance of failure for them to cut back on metal theft over the next one to two years. They will, however, be crucial to increasing the risks of committing these crimes. North Carolina recently passed comprehensive legislation for the state designed to curb this problem. Additionally, California recently developed an online reporting tool for scrap metal theft to ease law enforcement efforts at spotting irregular sales patterns. This trend will likely expand to other states if the Metal Theft Prevention Act is passed.

Pending the forthcoming federal legislation, state and local law enforcement agencies’ best chances to reduce the number of metal thefts comes from educating the public on deterrent techniques and by working closely with local scrap and recycling yards.  The Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) produced a report on methods to prevent and reduce copper wire theft. Other tools are available to facilitate collaboration between retailers and authorities. While legislation often centers on the resale of illicit metals, these techniques focus on decreasing the likelihood that thefts will actually occur. In Georgia, this collaborative effort was very successful.

Concurring Authors:

Dissenting Authors:


Passage Of Federal Act Would Likely Curtail Metal Theft Epidemic In 1-2 Years

Executive Summary:

Due to a lack of regulation on scrap yards and inadequate criminal charges, it is likely that enacting a federal law would curtail the growing metal theft epidemic. With strict federal regulations and the creation of a special felony charge for metal theft, it is likely that scrap yards would work harder to not purchase stolen metals and metal thieves would be greatly deterred by the heavy punishments. It is also likely that a lack of federal intervention is this matter is contributing to metal theft, as each state handles metal theft differently.

Discussion:

Currently, metal theft and scrap yard regulation is not well addressed[1] at a federal level. Each state[2] handles the matter differently, though almost all states[3] have some form of law designed to help deter and catch metal thieves, done mostly by requiring scrap yards to keep varying amounts of documentation for every transaction. Should a thief be caught, prosecution of the individual varies greatly[4] as the offense typically falls under local and state laws, though it is possible for these cases to be prosecuted under domestic terrorism laws[5]. This lack of baseline national laws and regulations is likely a major contributing factor to the overall metal theft problem.

The issue may be addressed at a federal level. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) introduced a bill[6] in October 2012 called the Metal Theft Prevention Act. This bill includes measures such as:

This proposed act is not the first[7] to address metal theft[8]. Should a federal statute be passed, it is likely that the amount of metal theft cases across the United States would decrease, as the likelihood of being caught and facing a punishment are greatly increased.

Analytic Confidence:

Analytic confidence for this assessment is moderate. Source reliability is medium to high. Sources did not conflict. The analyst had moderate expertise, worked alone, and did not use structured analytic methods. The subject is easy and the deadline was easy to meet.


Despite Legislative Efforts, Metal Theft Likely To Persist Next 1-2 Years

Executive Summary:

Efforts by legislators to curtail metal theft through new laws at all levels of government are likely to be moderately successful. However, there is a chance of failure for them to cut back on metal theft over the next one to two years. Because of high profitability, a low risk of getting caught, and an abundance of metal, law enforcement likely must incorporate other methods in addition to their legislative efforts. Though it is likely that legislative efforts will slow the epidemic by deterring both scrap yards and thieves, criminal rings will likely continue to operate as long as metal prices remain high.

Discussion:

The theft of scrap metal is very prevalent because of the payoff to thieves. In some states, even with improved legislation[9], some departments are unable to keep up[10] with enforcement because the problem is so rampant. Therefore, it is likely that metal theft will continue to be a problem as long as the above factors continue to be favorable to criminals. In many cases the risk of detection is low, and increasing prices for scrap will likely be a sufficient motivator to continue this trend. The catalytic converter comes free of the vehicle after two cuts along the exhaust line using a battery operated saw and thieves can accomplish this in under a minute[11]. Thieves prefer vehicles that sit higher off the ground, such as SUVs and trucks[12], as they are easier to maneuver under. The National Insurance Crime Bureau reported an increase in the theft of catalytic converters beginning in mid-2008[13].

In the public sector, copper theft is an increasingly difficult problem[14] for law enforcement. Thieves target infrastructure, such as power lines and pipes, which in some cases are difficult to secure[15]. Although the value of these products may be in the hundreds of dollars, the costs to municipalities is often numbered in the thousands[16].

In order to combat this threat, it is highly likely that law enforcement will continue to develop their strategic and tactical tools to punish thieves and purchasers. As discussed previously, Senator Schumer proposed an act to increase penalties for scrap metal theft at the federal level. Until this legislation is acted upon, states will need to address the problem on a more localized level. North Carolina recently passed comprehensive legislation[17] (Full Text[18]) for the state designed to curb this problem. The bill empowers law enforcement with a permitting process[19] for scrap yards to better track large purchases and potential thieves. In addition, the legislation sets a limit of 100 USD on cash purchases to ensure that a paper trail is available for law enforcement to follow. California is making a concerted effort to address steadily increasing theft of copper infrastructure. They recently developed an online reporting tool[20] for scrap metal theft, to ease law enforcement efforts at spotting irregular selling patterns. Unfortunately, law enforcement efforts thus far have not succeeded. In Los Angeles[21], illicit scrap metal yards periodically pop up to take advantage of the large black market in scrap metal, circumventing the permitting process, and therefore thwarting law enforcement efforts.

Complicating this problem is the steady rise in scrap and precious metal values. Since prices dropped dramatically in the fall of 2008, both platinum[22] and copper[23] prices have steadily rebounded. Futures prices[24] for these two metals indicate that chances are better than even that this trend will continue. This valuation for these metals translates to favorable prices for thieves. Catalytic converters are worth anywhere from $50 to $200 from scrap metal dealers[25]. According to scrapmonsters.com, #2 scrap copper[26] traded at $3.34 USD per pound on 26 September 2012, an 11%[27] increase since 15 August 2012.

In the event that a federal law[28] is passed and laws are better enforced, it is likely that metal theft will instead become a practice of criminal rings. Members of these rings work together to steal precious metals from specific targets[29] and then fence the metals, with scrap yards sometimes knowingly[30] or unknowingly taking them. In some cases, the scrap yard owners are in cahoots[31] with metal theft rings. Metals stolen by these rings are likely to come from a variety of sources[32], such as copper from houses, construction equipment, metal from cars, railroad tracks, and many more. Like any other sort of ring and despite laws designed to stop them, there will always be a market, making it likely that metal theft will continue, though likely at a lesser extent, in a black market manner operated by crime rings.

Analytic Confidence:

Analytic confidence for this assessment is moderate. Source reliability is medium to high. There is no conflict amongst sources. The analyst had moderate expertise, worked alone, and did not use structured analytic methods. The subject is easy and the deadline was easy to meet.


State and Local Law Enforcement Likely To Reduce Total Number Of Metal Thefts In The Next 1-2 Years Through Public Education And A Close Working Relationship With Local Recyclers

Executive Summary

Despite the influx of recent metal thefts driven by rising metal prices State and Local law enforcement agencies are likely to reduce the number of scrap metal thefts over the next 1-2 years by educating the public on deterrent techniques and by working closely with local scrap and recycling yards.  

Discussion

In 2009, the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) produced a report[33] on methods to prevent and reduce copper wire theft throughout the State.  Within the report ADOT provides several suggestions that are likely to reduce the amount of scrap metal theft, specifically copper wire.  Several companies reported to ADOT these successful techniques[34]:

including apprehending thieves instead of chasing them off.

A&A Midwest recycling also released a metal theft prevention guide[35] for its customers in order to educate the public on prevention techniques and to provide victims with guidance of who to contact after a theft occurs.  According to the guide the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc.[36] is the forerunner of metal theft prevention and every year the group holds a theft prevention presentation where it provides businesses with techniques to prevent theft.  A&A reports that in order for the number of thefts to decrease that the public, law enforcement, and recyclers need to work together.  One such tool that facilitates this collaboration is ScrapTheftAlert.com[37] which victims can use to report stolen materials.  The website then emails appropriate law enforcement officials and recyclers in a 300 mile radius, in essence hindering the perpetrator(s) from selling the stolen goods.

In November 2006, the Local Police Department in Macon, Georgia formed the Macon-Middle Georgia Metal Theft Committee[38]. Comprised of scrap processors, energy and utility companies, homeowners associations, law enforcement officers, and prosecutors this committee met every 6-8 weeks to share information on recent thefts in the area and determine courses of action to take to reduce the number of thefts. During the first two years of its creation the number of metal theft cases in the area dropped from 84 in December 2006 to 8 in November of 2008 (see Annex 2). Soon after the Macon, GA report came out the State created a joint task force[39] in the surrounding areas of Augusta-Richmond, GA to combat the problem.

Other agencies and groups, such as the Center for Problem Oriented Policing (CPOP)[40], provide reports to close the gap between the victims and law enforcement.  In one report[41], the CPOP found that by simply painting the copper used at work sites (see figure 1) and relaying this information to local recyclers the number of thefts in that area dropped.  In addition, by paying metal sellers in cash recycling companies likely reduce thefts as many perpetrators steal metal for quick and easy cash.  

Analytical Confidence

Analytic confidence for this assessment is high.  The analyst did not utilize structured methods of analysis for this report. Source reliability is high and the sources corroborated each other.  The analyst’s expertise is medium and the analyst worked alone.  Subject complexity is moderate and the time available for the task was adequate.


Annex 1

Methods And Processes:

Due to conflicting schedules over the holiday weekend, the team recognized it was unable to work simultaneously with each other for very long. Team members wrote their assigned sections using Google Docs and left comments throughout the document to provide feedback. If two members were working on the document at the same time, Google’s built-in document chat was used. Phone communications, both calls and SMS, were used to update other members of progress made if no other members were online.

Illness and unexpected circumstances over the extended holiday weekend placed the team behind schedule, requiring a face-to-face meeting the night the assignment was due to finish in a timely manner. Outside of this, all other agreed upon plans took place.


Annex 2

Reported Copper Theft Incidents: City of Macon, GA

Reported Copper Theft Incidents in Macon County, Georgia from September 2006 to November 2008.  From the National Crime Prevention Council article[42] on the Macon-Middle Georgia Metal Theft Committee.


Annex 3

Contact Information:

For comments, questions, or additional information, please contact the analysts:

Chad Los Schumacher

clossc80@lakers.mercyhurst.edu

Peter O’Malley

pomall01@lakers.mercyhurst.edu

Shawn Ruminski

srumin25@lakers.mercyhurst.edu


[1] Problem-Oriented Guides for PoliceProblem-Specific Guides SeriesNo. 58 -- Theft of Scrap Metal. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://cops.usdoj.gov/Publications/e031022263-Theft-of-ScrapMetal.pdf 

[2] ScrapLaws.com - Laws, Resources, Prices and News for Recyclers of Metal, Paper, Plastic, etc. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.scraplaws.com/

[3] States get tougher on metal theft. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2012/10/03/states-get-tougher-on-metal-theft/1611729/ 

[4] Copper Theft Statutes: December 2008. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.ncsl.org/issues-research/energyhome/copper-theft-statutes-december-2008.aspx 

[5] Center for Problem-Oriented Policing | Problem Guides | Theft of Scrap Metal. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.popcenter.org/problems/metal_theft/print/ 

[6] Senator Charles E. Schumer. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.schumer.senate.gov/Newsroom/record.cfm?id=337756 

[7] Bill Text - 111th Congress (2009-2010) - THOMAS (Library of Congress). (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c111:S.418.IS:

[8] H.R.6831: Copper Theft Prevention Act of 2008 - U.S. Congress - OpenCongress. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.opencongress.org/bill/110-h6831/show 

[9] Metal Theft Laws Beefed Up in Calif. » Electric Co-op Today. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.ect.coop/industry/crime/california-metal-theft-laws-take-effect/48687 

[10] Metal thieves find markets at illegal scrap yards - SFGate. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Metal-thieves-find-markets-at-illegal-scrap-yards-3807238.php 

[11] Thieves stealing valuable car part to sell for cheap as scrap | wfaa.com Dallas - Fort Worth. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.wfaa.com/news/consumer/catalytic-converter-thefts-rise-138165259.html 

[12] Catalytic Converter Theft | Prevent Stolen Catalytic Converters from Nationwide | Nationwide.com. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.nationwide.com/catalytic-converter-theft.jsp

[13] Car Break-ins Can Cost You| USAA. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from https://www.usaa.com/inet/pages/advice_car_breakins 

[14] FBI — Copper Theft Intel Report (UNCLASS). (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2008/december/copper-theft-intel-report-unclass 

[15] 4 accused of copper theft arrested » Local News » The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.register-herald.com/local/x1241986982/4-accused-of-copper-theft-arrested 

[16] Database to Thwart Copper Theft » Electric Co-op Today. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.ect.coop/industry/copper-theft/database-to-thwart-copper-theft/47507 

[17] Metal Theft Prevention Act passes N.C. House | The-Dispatch.com. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.the-dispatch.com/article/20120619/news/306199971 

[18] GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF NORTH CAROLINA SESSION 2011 SESSION LAW 2012-46 HOUSE BILL 199 (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.ncga.state.nc.us/sessions/2011/bills/house/pdf/h199v6.pdf 

[19] New Scrap Metal Buyer Permitting Law Goes Into Effect October 1, 2012; Businesses Required To Contact Sheriff’s Office To Apply For Permits » Alexander County Sheriff’s Office. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.alexandersheriff.org/new-scrap-metal-buyer-permitting-law-goes-into-effect-october-1-2012-businesses-required-to-contact-sheriffs-office-to-apply-for-permits/ 

[20] Database to Thwart Copper Theft » Electric Co-op Today. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.ect.coop/industry/copper-theft/database-to-thwart-copper-theft/47507 

[21] Illegal scrap yards in California a burgeoning problem - Los Angeles Times. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://articles.latimes.com/2012/aug/21/local/la-me-metal-theft-20120822 

[22] 5 Year Platinum Prices and Platinum Price Charts - InvestmentMine. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.infomine.com/investment/metal-prices/platinum/5-year/ 

[23] 5 Year Copper Prices and Copper Price Charts - InvestmentMine. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.infomine.com/investment/metal-prices/copper/5-year/ 

[24] Futures:Platinum Futures. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.wikinvest.com/futures/Platinum_Futures 

[25] Center for Problem-Oriented Policing | Problem Guides | Theft of Scrap Metal. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.popcenter.org/problems/metal_theft/print/ 

[26] # 2 Copper Wire and Tubing ISRI Code CLIFF. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.scrapmonster.com/scrap-prices/item/-2-Copper/19 

[27] Ibid

[28] Senator Charles E. Schumer. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.schumer.senate.gov/Newsroom/record.cfm?id=337756 

[29] FBI — Copper Theft Intel Report (UNCLASS). (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2008/december/copper-theft-intel-report-unclass 

[30] Metal thieves find markets at illegal scrap yards - SFGate. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Metal-thieves-find-markets-at-illegal-scrap-yards-3807238.php 

[31] Recycling Center Owner Arrested in Connection with Scrap Metal Theft Ring | WSAV TV. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www2.wsav.com/news/2012/apr/25/recycling-center-owner-arrested-connection-scrap-m-ar-3675435/ 

[32] FBI — Charges Filed Against Ring That Stole Autos and Cargo, Then Scrapped and Disposed of Them at Northeast Ohio Locations. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.fbi.gov/cleveland/press-releases/2012/charges-filed-against-ring-that-stole-autos-and-cargo-then-scrapped-and-disposed-of-them-at-northeast-ohio-locations 

[33] Options for Reducing Copper Theft -- AZDOT. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.azdot.gov/TPD/ATRC/publications/project_reports/PDF/AZ657.pdf 

[34] Options for Reducing Copper Theft -- AZDOT. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.azdot.gov/TPD/ATRC/publications/project_reports/PDF/AZ657.pdf 

[35] A&A Midwest :: Guides. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.aamidwest.com/recycling/guides/ 

[36] Home. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.isri.org/ 

[37] ScrapTheftAlert.com. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.scraptheftalert.com/ 

[38] Scrapping the Metal Thieves — National Crime Prevention Council. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.ncpc.org/programs/catalyst-newsletter/catalyst-newsletter-2008/volume-29-number-1/scrapping-the-metal-thieves 

[39] C.S.R.A. Metal Theft Task Force -- Georgia. (n.d.) Retrieved November 4, 2012 from http://aug-cdn.com/sites/default/files/CSRA%20Metal%20Theft%20Task%20Force%20Details.pdf 

[40] Center for Problem-Oriented Policing | Home. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.popcenter.org/ 

[41] Center for Problem-Oriented Policing | Problem Guides | Theft of Scrap Metal. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.popcenter.org/problems/metal_theft/3 

[42]      Scrapping the Metal Thieves — National Crime Prevention Council. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.ncpc.org/programs/catalyst-newsletter/catalyst-newsletter-2008/volume-29-number-1/scrapping-the-metal-thieves