Copper as a commodity
Scrap metal bandits re-emerge, attracted by high salvage prices

Thieves crept in the Snellville Operations Center through a fence, under the cover of night.

They scurried among the bucket trucks and line vehicles owned by Walton EMC, snooping in storage bins and truck beds for a big payoff in the form of brassy spools of metal.

They wanted copper. As much as possible.

But the duo wasn't the first of its kind to target the center this year. As such, they were being watched by a blanket of closed-circuit video surveillance. A weekend dispatcher, observing the would-be thieves, notified Gwinnett police, who apprehended the men in minutes.

It was a small battle won in a much larger war, Walton EMC officials say.

The utility provider, which services 60,000 homes in southeast Gwinnett, has been faced with an unprecedented scourge of copper theft in recent months, said Greg Brooks, company spokesman.

Thieves are stripping copper from utility poles and going so far as to rip thick cables from the underground system, prompting expensive repairs and replacements. But the primary target has become the growing stock of developed, but vacant, homes across Gwinnett, said Brooks.

"At least once a week we hear about some type of report," Brooks said. "Two years ago, you didn't hear of it as much."

Gwinnett police last led a crackdown on scrap metal theft in 2006, when thieves first rustled copper en masse in response to skyrocketing scrap metal payouts. The following year, Gov. Sonny Perdue signed Senate Bill 203, which made stealing and hawking anything from beer kegs to copper tubing a felony if the metal is worth more than $500. The "makeshift task force" assembled by Gwinnett police was dismantled after several repeat offenders were arrested, a spokesman said at time.

But those measures could have been a temporary fix.

Cpl. Illana Spellman, Gwinnett police spokesman, said copper theft reports are spiking at new home construction sites. The metal, commonly used in plumbing and outdoor air conditioners, is easily accessed by thieves with proper tools, Spellman said.

"Home builders may want to think of investing in security measures like cameras, or even security or off-duty police officers" to patrol job sites after hours, Spellman said.

A sampling of recent, unrelated arrests shows the allege thefts are hardly relegated to one pocket of the county:

n Gwinnett police arrested two Chamblee men for loitering and prowling in a Grayson subdivision on March 19. The men were near a home's power box on Pointcrest Way, carrying wire-cutters and flashlights, police said.

n Police reportedly found three large bundles of copper tubing and cutting tools in the trunk of a Hoschton man's car on March 14. The 33-year-old was stopped in Buford for driving suspiciously near a construction site, police said.

n On April 18, a 22-year-old Winder man was arrested by Auburn police for stealing copper wires from the attic of a vacant home on Briarwood Court, police said. The home's air conditioning unit was also dismantled.

Experts agree the rise in theft is driven by inflating copper prices, the result of a domestic copper shortage and a higher demand overseas, particularly from new construction in Asia.

The U.S. Department of Energy reported last year that international copper companies are unable to keep pace with demand, resulting in a jump of about $3 per pound in the price of salvaged copper since 2001.

The metal's worth has equally soared in Gwinnett.

This week, a pound of copper without fittings or insulation - what's known as "clean copper" - fetched $3.28, said Jim Adams, owner of The Adams Company, a recycling center in Buford. The next lower grade was worth $3.02 per pound.

Five years ago, the same material earned sellers less than a dollar per pound.

The burgeoning prices keep well-meaning recyclers on alert, Adams said.

"We're very concerned about keeping our inflow honest and not taking stolen materials," he said. "We work with police on a regular basis. We also alert vendors like Home Depot when we find their material coming in."

Red flags signaling illegitimate copper are sometimes obvious, sometimes not.

"Probably the most blatant is when we have 10-foot sticks of copper that still have bar codes," Adams said.

Brooks, of Walton EMC, said thieves have stolen 50-pound spools of copper, then chopped and mixed it with other metals, such as aluminum, to disguise it.

The upward trend in thefts isn't going unnoticed. The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries operates an online theft alert system that pinpoints scrap metal theft across the United States.

"We have companies that call us from time to time and alert us to be on the lookout," said Adams.