STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The price of copper remains near historic highs. And so is the amount of copper being stolen - hundreds of millions of dollars worth every year. Lawmakers are trying to crack down here, with some two dozen states considering tougher penalties aimed at making it harder to sell stolen copper. NPR's Candace Wheeler traveled to a Virginia town that's been a victim of copper crime.
CANDACE WHEELER, BYLINE: James City County, Va., near the historic colonial town of Williamsburg, not a huge crime center. But Maj. Steve Rubino, with the county police department, says there have been six major incidents since January.
MAJ. STEVE RUBINO: We all set? Ready to roll?
WHEELER: We meet up with him at the two-story, brick police station and climb into his black Chevy Suburban. First stop, a power substation surrounded by a chain-link fence, at the end of a remote road.
RUBINO: Let me pull up a little bit so you can see it. On this one right here, in between the signs, notice up near the top where it's kind of gray - the color of the tower. And then you see where the copper is?
RUBINO: That's the new copper, where they've had to go in and replace that wiring that has been stolen.
WHEELER: With thousands of dollars at stake, Rubino says thieves are taking risks.
RUBINO: Even though it says "high voltage, may cause injury or death," obviously, they were not concerned with that.
WHEELER: Police say the thieves who robbed this substation may be responsible for another theft at an office park 10 miles away.
RUBINO: One, two, three, four, five, six air conditioning units, heat pumps.
WHEELER: And across town, a used car lot.
RUBINO: We've had somebody cut a hole in that fence, and then go in and remove radiators from some cars and catalytic converters.
WHEELER: With six cases, just how much money are we talking about?
RUBINO: About $3,200 worth...$8,000... $500... $2,800... approximately $4,000 worth of copper wiring...
WHEELER: And for police, another challenge: Once the copper is stolen, it's nearly impossible to track it down.
RUBINO: You know, they're stealing it to bring it someplace where it's melted down. It's not like stealing a TV, where there's a serial number; or a car, where there's a VIN number; and can easily be traced.
WHEELER: It's like this all over the country, and states are responding. Since January, 49 bills have been introduced in nearly two dozen states. Many of them involve just that problem - tracking the sale of used copper. In Ohio, one bill would prohibit scrap dealers from buying copper plumbing pipe from anyone other than a plumber. Many of the bills would make scrap dealers take pictures of copper items, and document them. Others would impose a waiting period before dealers could sell the copper. Just last month, Virginia passed a law that requires scrap dealers to keep photos of metal they purchase, on hand, for at least a month. Even Congress has stepped in.
SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR: I don't think people realize what a problem this crime is. It has jumped more than 80 percent in recent years.
WHEELER: U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, of Minnesota, is proposing new legislation that would make stealing copper - in some cases - a federal crime, and would increase regulations on buying and selling it.
KLOBUCHAR: We have places in Minnesota that have been broken into multiple times, many of them in rural areas. Veterans' graves - someone stole 200 bronze stars off a veteran's grave.
WHEELER: Police, she says, need more help.
KLOBUCHAR: Our laws have to be as sophisticated as the crooks that are breaking them.
WHEELER: A customer tosses a pile of scrap copper onto a jumbo scale at Old Dominion Metals in Hampton, Va. It's about 30 minutes away from James City County. John Hund runs the family business with his dad.
JOHN HUND: If they have big load, they go dump it in the pile where it goes - copper, brass, things of that nature.
WHEELER: Today, he's out back, where a steady stream of people show up in pickup trucks or cars, with plastic bins full of all kinds of scrap metal to sell.
HUND: We did about 25 million pounds last year.
WHEELER: Hund and his father, Tim, knows that some of the copper they buy may be stolen. In fact, sometimes they've called the police on suspicious customers. So I asked him, what do you think about some of these new proposed regulations? The waiting period?
HUND: Ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous.
WHEELER: He waves at the yard and its huge mounds of aluminum cans, copper, old air-conditioners, car parts.
HUND: What you're seeing here - you saw how full the warehouse was. That's just today. That's just stuff that has come in today. So A, you would not have the room to store everything; B:, you'd have to have some pretty deep pockets to shell out 250 grand worth of metal and not get paid for it that long.
WHEELER: No question - the proposed regulations will add new burdens and costs for recyclers like John Hund. But lawmakers and police say they need to balance other concerns - like the damage copper theft is causing to infrastructure, and the hundreds of millions of dollars these crimes are costing victims. They say the single best place to catch thieves is at the scrap yard.
Candace Wheeler. NPR News.