NORCROSS — Police arrested a Norcross man this week suspected of pocketing more than $21,000 by selling stolen metal to area recyclers since August. The case illustrates an ongoing grapple with metal thieves, or “scrappers,” that’s more prevalent in Georgia than all but two other states, a recent study shows.
A report by the National Insurance Crime Bureau gave Georgia the dubious distinction of having more metal theft claims than every state but Texas and Ohio, respectively. The review tallied claims between January 2009 and December 2011. With 823 claims, metro Atlanta lagged only Chicago and New York in terms of urban areas.
The study included a range of thefts, from catalytic converters boosted from personal vehicles to copper wiring stolen from a California airport that blacked out approach lights on the runway.
Lee Swann, a corporate security investigator for the Georgia Transmission Corporation, which handles bulk electrical transmissions for most Georgia EMCs, said “scrappers” function in groups of up to six and will drive 50 miles to find a metal recycler paying a higher rate.
Scrappers aren’t picky, Swann said, so long as the metal can be sold. Stolen items have included urns from cemeteries, air conditioners from churches, railroad spikes, shopping carts and manhole covers, which creates an obvious public hazard. For scrappers to make thousands per month is not uncommon, Swann said.
“Really and truly there is nothing that won’t be stolen,” he said. “If it’s metal, it’s fair game to these people.”
Gwinnett police believe they bagged one such indiscriminate thief this week in Nathaniel Houston, 29.
Houston allegedly made a habit of pilfering copper wire and other valuables from building materials suppliers and industrial areas around Norcross and Doraville, and possibly other locations outside Gwinnett County.
In March, copper wire and rare brass sieves used for inspecting asphalt were stolen during burglaries at Metro Materials and Humphries Building Supplies near Doraville in unincorporated Gwinnett.
Detectives with the Gwinnett police metal theft unit, formed in November to combat metal thieves, located the brass sieves at JB’s Recycling in DeKalb County, where they had been brought and sold by Houston, said Gwinnett police spokesman Cpl. Jake Smith.
Houston resurfaced at JB’s Recycling on Monday, trying to sell 12 commercial batteries and a bulldozer battery before employees contacted the metal theft unit. Officers responded and arrested Houston without incident, Smith said.
Houston is being held without bond at the Gwinnett County Jail, charged with three counts of burglary, one count of entering auto and one count of theft by deception. He could face additional charges in other jurisdictions, Smith said.
A pushback against thieves is under way.
In November, Gwinnett police launched the metal theft unit, whose aim is to investigate crimes and ensure that metal recyclers comply with state law. The team was formed in reaction to an ongoing problem more than a spike in crime, officials said.
“These cases have been investigated by different units in the past,” Smith said at the time, “but a unit focusing particularly on this type of crime will help.”
Earlier this month, Gov. Nathan Deal signed legislation that places additional requirements on Georgia’s metal recyclers and sellers in an effort to curb metal theft. The bill, HB 872, was co-sponsored by Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Buford) and will take effect July 1.
The new standards, which exclude batteries, will require sellers to submit to having a photograph taken of themselves and what they’re selling, and to complete a signed statement that they are legally in possession of the property, among other requirements.
Thieves, Swann surmised, will become “imaginative” in efforts to skirt those regulations.
“It remains to be seen how imaginative,” he said.
Swann tracks copper theft at substations and transmission lines across Georgia. Of 133 incidents in 2011, 13 were in Gwinnett, and projections for this year appear to be holding steady, he said.
The price of metal is driven by world markets and has generally spiked since 2007. Manufacturers can save substantially by buying metals from recyclers, as opposed to metals mined and shipped to the United States, Swann said.
Prices vary by market, but Swann said copper in metro Atlanta was selling this week for about $3 per pound — down from highs of $3.60 last year, but up more than $1 per pound from 2007, when the Georgia Transmission Corporation began tracking theft. By comparison, steel fetches about 10 to 13 cents a pound, he said.
An average copper theft at a typical substation involves the ground wire, and can lead to electrocution for utility workers. Costs to repair average about $4,000, Swann said.
“The amount taken will get the thief no more than $200,” he said.