For Thieves, Copper Is Gold in the Gutter

With the price of aluminum near a 20-year high last summer, thieves hauled away bleacher seats from Fort Greble Field, home to a D.C. school baseball team. In recent weeks, thieves have stolen catalytic converters from cars.
With the price of aluminum near a 20-year high last summer, thieves hauled away bleacher seats from Fort Greble Field, home to a D.C. school baseball team. In recent weeks, thieves have stolen catalytic converters from cars. (Courtesy Of Clark Ray)

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By Candace Rondeaux and Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 25, 2007

In the District's affluent Chevy Chase neighborhood, the thefts began when the spring rains arrived. Copper downspouts vanished from the side of a house, causing its basement to flood. Later, someone was spotted pulling the gutters off another residence.

In all, thieves hit about 15 homes, police say, making off with a commodity that is more popular than ever on the black market: used copper.

Soaring prices for salvaged metals, driven by a global demand in Asian markets, have turned scrap into the new gold for the sticky-fingered set, leading to spikes in an array of property crimes in the Washington area and elsewhere. Manhole covers, beer kegs, light poles, air-conditioning units and even catalytic converters -- valued for the small amount of platinum they contain -- have been targeted to feed a $65 billion domestic scrap-recycling industry.

On several occasions this month, thieves dug up hundreds of feet of underground copper cable used to illuminate ball fields in Anne Arundel County, forcing the organizers of a youth baseball tournament to reschedule a half-dozen games. "We got hit three times in eight days," said Ray Fox, president of the Linthicum Ferndale Youth Athletic Association.

In Northern Virginia this year, crime reports are peppered with metal thefts. Among them: bronze cemetery flower vases and stainless-steel construction edging stolen in Fairfax County, copper gutters and tubing taken in Loudoun and aluminum siding removed from a yard in Prince William.

Thieves in recent weeks have crawled under cars to cut out their catalytic converters, a component of a vehicle emissions system, in a parking lot in the Annapolis area and a junkyard in Howard County.

With the price of aluminum near a 20-year high last summer, someone carted away the bleacher seats at the District's Fort Greble Field, home to Ballou Senior High School's baseball team.

In some cases, thieves have put themselves in great danger by stealing live electrical wires from buildings. A 41-year-old man was electrocuted this month in a vacant building in Pasadena, and a 47-year-old man was killed while stripping wire from a D.C. school last year. In the past year, about two dozen people have been killed across the country while trying to steal metals, according to news accounts.

Pepco spokesman Robert Dobkin said thieves in search of copper broke into the utility's substations eight times in the past year. "It's a commodity and they want to cash in on it, but our concern is injury," Dobkin said. "It's one thing to steal copper wire from a yard, and it's another thing to break into a substation with live electricity."

Metal scrap is often more easily unloaded than other stolen goods. Some dealers pay in cash, and scrap is typically processed in ways that obliterate any indication of its provenance. With the price of metal so high, an unscrupulous dealer might not be motivated to investigate where and how a seller's scrap was salvaged.

Legislators in many states have acted recently to more closely regulate the industry or are now considering doing so. In an effort to tighten controls on stolen material, the Virginia legislature approved a measure this year requiring metal buyers to record an identification number for unauthorized sellers, such as a Social Security or driver's license number, and make such records available to police upon request.

Because booming economies in such nations as China and India require massive quantities of metal, the market principles of supply and demand have made metal theft far more profitable than it once was. Copper traded for $3.35 a pound in June, a more than fourfold increase over its price in 2003. Platinum traded this month at about $1,300 a troy ounce, more than twice its value five years ago -- fueling the criminal appetite for catalytic converters.


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