The Growing Black Market for Copper
ALISON STEWART, host:
5,500 residents in and around Hinze, Mississippi, they still don't have power. After a series of storms that left 8,000 damaged at 22 people injured, at least ten of the county's 60 storm warning sirens failed to go off. Why? Human error? No. Faulty wiring? Nuh-uh. No wiring.
The copper inside the sirens had reportedly been snatched out by thieves. In just the past two days, four people in Peekskill, New York, were arrested for stealing copper piping from the facilities of the Holland Sporting Club. Someone broke into a power substation near Bessemer, Alabama, overnight and ripped off some copper elements. And in Texas, a 52-year-old man is facing felony charges for ripping off welding leads.
According to the Institute of Scrap Metal Recycling Industries, a non-profit trade organization, 174 metal thefts have been reported in the last three months, a spike over the same period of last year. This is a story we've been following for months here at the Bryant Park Project, and we wanted to update. Chuck Carr is the vice president of member services for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. Hi, Chuck.
Mr. CHUCK CARR (Vice President, Member Services, Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries): Good morning.
STEWART: Good morning. So, like most criminals, metal thieves look for motive, opportunity and a victim. Tell us how the current economic climate has created the perfect conditions to meet those criteria.
Mr. CARR: Absolutely. Currently, commodity prices for metals, particularly non-ferris metals such as copper and aluminum, are at, or close to, record highs. That certainly provides the motive to criminals, and we have an extra problem with opportunity, in that they're stealing things that people are not ordinarily accustomed to having to protect.
STEWART: What kind of things?
Mr. CARR: Oh, it could be anything. We've seen, as you mentioned, utility wire, copper gutters and roofs - copper roofs from churches in certain areas that have been stolen. The list just goes on and on. The criminals, when they find the opportunity, will certainly take that opportunity.
STEWART: I even understand that car parts have recently become fair game. Not fair game, but game, I should say.
Mr. CARR: Car parts have been a problem for many, many years, and certainly have been a significant problem recently, such as catalytic converters on an automobile, which not only include ferris metals, iron and steel, they also include trace amounts of some very precious metals, platinum, palladium, rhodium, for instance. So that's been a problem that we've seen not only the scrap-recycling industry, but as a more significant problem for the auto-salvage yard industry.
STEWART: Everything from manhole covers to funeral urns, even street signs, beer kegs.
Mr. CARR: Absolutely. And the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries has been tracking this now for more than two years since the beginning of the current price spikes. And our association - in fact, our entire industry is working to be a part of the solution to this problem instead of part of the problem.
STEWART: In what ways are you working towards being a part of the solution?
Mr. CARR: Well, on a national level, we've created something called the "ISRI Theft Alert System." It's actually been in place for more than 20 years, but has been totally revamped using new technology for the current crisis. You know, this is a cyclical problem that happens every time metal prices increase. And more than 20 years ago, we used a new technology called fax to get the information out to police agencies and to our members in certain areas.
We now use the Internet. We use the web. We use email to send theft alerts out to the scrap-recycling industry any time we hear a material has been stolen. If something that's stolen in one state, the alerts go out to recyclers not only in that state, but to all surrounding states, as well. And sadly, we've put out more than 1,000 of those alerts in the past year.
STEWART: So the point is that, if you're a scrap recycler, and you get one of these alerts, you can be on the lookout for incoming, I don't know, a thousand urns were stolen from some funeral warehouse.
Mr. CARR: Absolutely. And that - you've pointed out a large part of our problem, in that, in most cases, it's impossible to tell stolen material from legitimate material when it comes into the scrap yard unless we know what to look for. But interesting that you mention cemetery urns because that has been a significant problem, made of bronze, in most cases.
That's material that is very much identifiable, and you'll find that most legitimate recyclers, and most recyclers are legitimate, would refuse that material at the gate. Unfortunately, there are still some unscrupulous people, fly-by-night operators that will take that material, destroy it in such a way that it's very hard to identify once it gets into the legitimate recycling stream.
STEWART: Well, are there any laws that might deal with these not-so-honest recyclers who will take this kind of metal?
Mr. CARR: Absolutely. There are laws now in more than half the states in the U.S. our industry is tracking. In fact, another 130 laws in other states around the U.S. And sometimes these laws are helpful. We certainly have worked with a lot of legislatures to make sure that they are workable. But just creating laws is not going to solve the problem.
Solving the problem is going to take all stakeholders in this problem working together, and we've identified stakeholders simply as the recycling industry, law enforcement, and that includes prosecutors and legislators, and possible victims, which could be anybody in the public. Each of those stakeholders has a role in fixing this problem.
STEWART: We're talking with Chuck Carr, vice president of member services for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, about all of the different metal theft that's going around the country. I want to ask you two questions. One, is there a profile of the metal thief?
Mr. CARR: If there were, I think it would be a lot easier for our police, who are working really hard to solve this problem. But unfortunately, there's not. There are three basic types that we've recognized. You see, in a lot of cases, drug addicts are taking small amounts of metal and taking it to yards, trying to sell it for their next fix. But it can come from any other type of group.
We've seen more organized groups that are pulling off much larger thefts. In fact, the sirens that you mentioned at the top of this program, likely were stolen, not by some single individual, but by an organized group of criminals. But sometimes it's people that are closer than you think. Employees in a company, much as you'd see in the retail business, is utility subcontractors, scrap-yard employees. Our own yards are often victims of this theft.
STEWART: There's also, of course, the law of supply and demand. So we know where people get the supply. Where's the demand?
Mr. CARR: Well, the demand is everywhere. The economy world-wide is still booming. There's construction going on six of seven continents. We use more copper, more aluminum today than ever before.
And then, when you add to that, that the commodity metals are a good hedge against a recession, against economic problems, you're finding more and more investment firms that are getting into the sale of semi-precious metals. Therefore, the prices have gotten high and stayed high for now almost two years.
STEWART: And you mention that potential victims can be proactive about this. What's one preventative measure someone can take?
Mr. CARR: Well, let me give you two. First of all, be aware that you now have materials outside your home that may be just as valuable as the things behind the deadbolt locks and protect them to the point that you can. More importantly, you need to be vigilant in your neighborhood. Don't assume that someone working on your neighbors gutters is replacing the gutters. They may be stealing the gutters.
STEWART: That air conditioner repair guy who's taking the wires out of the back of the air conditioner might just be taking the wires from the air conditioner.
Mr. CARR: Absolutely. In the city of Baltimore about a year ago, they had someone that looked like road crew that was working on light poles who managed to steal several of them from off the street.
STEWART: Oh, my.
Mr. CARR: You have to be aware of your surroundings.
STEWART: Chuck Carr, vice president of member services for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. Chuck, thanks for being with us.
Mr. CARR: Thank you. Have a great morning.
STEWART: You, too.
RACHEL MARTIN, host:
Hey, stay with us. Next up on the show, two veterans of the Iraq war on a tour to raise consciousness and support for soldiers in both Iraq and Afghanistan. And Chelsea Clinton, she's on the stump to help raise support for her mother. We're going to get a check up on that from our friend, NPR's correspondent Robert Smith. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.