By SARAH HOGUE
WASHINGTON (April 12, 2012)—They've robbed graves and construction sites, churches and schools. They've taken statues from bases and ordinary pipes right out of the walls—but even a new law designed to curb these scrap metal thieves seems to barely slow them down.
Brian Sclar, the president of the metal recycling business Frederick Reliable, has his workers follow the law—viewing and recording full identification of sellers and photographing all the scrap they're selling—but said it doesn't seem to have put a dent in the problem.
"I don't think it has been a huge deterrent," he said, referring to the number of copper thefts in Maryland. "But I do think it has been very effective in solving a number of copper theft crimes."
In February, six men were arrested for the theft of about $31,500 worth of copper wire belonging to Verizon in Aspen Hill, the most recent in a long string of copper thefts in Maryland. The suspects were caught in the act, using a bucket truck to take more than 1,800 feet of copper wire from telephone poles.
Copper theft—striking many utilities and other businesses—has been common in Maryland since sharp price increases took the price of copper from about $1.25 per pound in January 2009 to about $4.50 per pound in May 2011.
"Copper theft is an issue that is very important and something that is very dangerous for the public at large," said Thomas Dennison, the public affairs officer at the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative.
"It's a dangerous issue, it's illegal and it could really disrupt service for a large number of people," said Dennison, who said he's seen an uptick in thefts starting two years ago, coinciding with skyrocketing copper prices.
"It's always disheartening," said Connie Stommel, a real estate agent for Exit 1 Stop Realty in Dunkirk, explaining how "frustrating" it is for homeowners trying to get their vacant homes sold, only to find out that the copper pipes have been stolen.
The Maryland General Assembly took note of the problem and passed in May 2011 more stringent restrictions on scrap metal sales and created the Regional Automated Property Information Database, called "RAPID," to collect data about sales and sellers.
The law requires scrap buyers to:
Note a description, including the weight and grade, of the scrap.
Take a picture of the scrap.
Record the date and time of the transaction and the money paid to the seller.
Record the name, date of birth, address, driver's license number, license plate number of the vehicle used to transport the metal, and the physical description of the seller as seen on their ID.
Send the information to local and state police.
Some scrap buyers say it has helped, but not enough.
"It's stopping them now," said James Gotman, an employee at Metro-Re-Uz-It Scrap Recycling Center in Hyattsville, explaining that while they don't ask where the scrap came from, the detailed information taken from the clients keeps less-truthful sellers away.
"In general, accountability is a deterrent. If people know they can be traced, they're less likely to try to steal something," said Bill Toohey, the communications director for the Maryland Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention.
But for the president of Metro-Re-Uz-It, R. Lee Nantz, the effect isn't so obvious.
"The bad economy has a lot more to do with it rather than the law," he said, explaining that the law may not have decreased the scrap coming in as much as the diminishing construction business. "There's not as much construction around," said Nantz, who normally sees most of his regular customers coming from construction sites.
Documenting the scrap that comes into recycling businesses is not a foolproof way to track stolen copper. Once the metal is removed, it's rarely identifiable and usually mixed with other scrap.
"There's no way to tell where any of the copper came from," said Robert Chapman, a Maryland plumbing contractor. "Unless they're caught in the act, there's not a way for people to get caught recycling."
In his business, Chapman ends up with a lot of used metal earmarked for recycling.
"We'll stockpile it 'til we have a full truckload," said Chapman, adding that it isn't worth the gas to sell scrap each time he collects it from a client.
The Regional Automated Property Information Database Fact Sheet for 2011 mentions major scrap metal thefts in six counties in Maryland as well as Baltimore City and includes a case where about $2.5 million in total of scrap metal was stolen. Police jurisdictions in as far away as Australia aided in the recovery of the metal.
RAPID had these successes through ideal cooperation with scrap recyclers. But not all scrap dealers are as cooperative as his crews, said Sclar.
"So if the criminal only had legitimate, law-abiding scrap dealers to go to, that would be a bigger deterrent," he said. "But based on the fact that there are some scrap dealers out there that don't play by the rules, that allows the criminal with an outlet for the material."
When the stolen copper happens to be unique, like a family heirloom, Detective Sgt. Al Paton of the Frederick Police said the likelihood of busting the thief is much higher.
"A lot of cases we close are because the copper is identified by the victim," said Paton, but this is very rare because most of the stolen copper comes from "construction sites or vacant houses owned by the bank."
The only way to see if the law's restrictions are cutting down theft is to talk to Lt. Dalaine Brady of the Maryland State Police, who is in charge of producing RAPID's Fact Sheet that shows the year's accomplishments.
"When a law enforcement agency makes a case using RAPID, they call and tell me," she said. "They're using it more and they're making many more cases."
RAPID's 2011 Fact Sheet touts 642 arrests, 882 cases closed and $5.2 million recovered in stolen property. It does not show figures for copper crime prior to 2011.
According to Maryland law enforcement, copper theft is not a specifically classified kind of crime. It falls under property crime, which makes it difficult to compile statistics about copper theft.
"So the law doesn't say RAPID at all, it just says that these dealers will report electronically in a format that's acceptable to the primary jurisdiction," said Brady.
"Other states don't have the uniform program like RAPID," she said.
With all this information going to either the local law enforcement jurisdiction or the Maryland State Police, RAPID increases the chances of returning stolen property and the authorities have help apprehending copper thieves and have the evidence available to them to prosecute them.