High Prices Drive Scrap Metal Thefts

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Chuck Carr, vice President of member services of the Institute for Scrap Metal Recycling Industries, talks with Linda Wertheimer about increasing thefts of scrap metal in the U.S. Metal prices are at record highs and thieves are hauling away everything they can get their hands on.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

With prices of copper, aluminum and brass going up, metal theft has become a serious problem across the country.

Thieves are increasingly targeting highway guardrails, light posts, stadium bleachers, park benches, metal siding from buildings, and even brass plaques from cemeteries. Joining me in the studio is Chuck Carr, who is Vice President for Member Services for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. His organization is trying to help combat this crime.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. CHUCK CARR (Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries): Thank you, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Now, in Omaha, Nebraska, thieves recently took an air conditioner unit from a house being built by Habitat for Humanity. In Arkansas, metal gates were stolen. And there are similar reports from many other states. Why is this going on right now?

Mr. CARR: Well, the best we can tell, is has to do with the price of metals. Metal prices, particularly non-ferrous metals right now in fact reached peaks in early May. Copper set a record for prices in all-time history. Aluminum flirted with its 18-year high.

WERTHEIMER: Well, with things like highway guardrails and light posts being stolen, this becomes a safety issue as well.

Mr. CARR: Absolutely, it becomes a safety issue, Linda. Theft is a problem wherever it occurs, but when it occurs in such a situation with these infrastructure items, it's a safety issue for the public. It's even a safety issue for the thief many times.

WERTHEIMER: What is driving the demand?

Mr. CARR: Across the globe, the economies are stronger than they've been. There's more building going on than there has been. Add to that some shortages that have been occurring, particularly in virgin metals, of copper and aluminum, makes the scrap much more valuable to the manufacturing sector.

WERTHEIMER: So where does the scrap metal go if it leaves the country?

Mr. CARR: Well, the United States, you might say, is the Saudi Arabia of scrap. Certainly we use a lot of it here, but about 20 percent of it does go overseas. Currently, most of that demand you're finding in China, you're finding in Turkey. But that changes. Twenty years ago it was Japan. Where the world economy is growing, that's where you find the scrap goes as well.

WERTHEIMER: It looks like this would be a difficult crime to stop. Because just by its very nature, once you recycle the scrap metal, what you're dealing with is sort of impersonal ingots. The evidence is melted.

Mr. CARR: Well, frankly, even before that point, it's a difficult crime to stop. The problem is that it's often difficult to tell legitimate scrap from stolen scrap. That's the reason why the institute has established something we call the Scrap Theft Alert. It's an e-mail system where we let our dealers know when we're made aware of metals that are stolen. Moreover, we're asking that law enforcement agencies that the public in general, when they have metals around, when possible, mark it in some way. Let us know what's been stolen, let us know how we can identify it, and we'll be on the lookout for it.

WERTHEIMER: So is most of what's going on, on this sort of large level, stealing carloads, or truckloads, or construction sites, that sort of thing?

Mr. CARR: Unfortunately not, Linda. It's also occurring even down to the consumer level. If you see someone working on your neighbor's gutters, don't assume they're replacing the gutters.

WERTHEIMER: Chuck Carr is Vice President for Member Services for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. Chuck Carr, thank you.

Mr. CARR: Thank you, Linda.

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