Copper Theft Gets Weirder — and More Dangerous

Stolen metal wires at UC-Berkeley, linked to a Monday night explosion that injured four people, is the latest in a series of bizarre heists

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Copper theft has been a serious problem in the U.S. since about 2006, but the precious metal raids took a turn for the spectacular this week as a suspected robbery likely resulted in a massive explosion on a California campus, injuring four people Monday night.

Officials at the University of California, Berkeley, said thieves harnessed heavy equipment to haul the copper out of the ground, according to the San Jose Mercury-News. On Monday night, a UC-Berkeley spokesman said the damage was more extensive than originally thought.

Officials are blaming last week’s copper theft, which occurred at an electrical station off campus, for a power outage on campus that occurred two hours before the explosion. As electrical workers tried to fix the outage, an electrical vault on campus exploded, injuring four people and trapping about 20 in elevators in nearby buildings.

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Cities around the country have struggled to combat copper thieves, who seem to just be getting bolder. Earlier this year, thieves stole $68,000 worth of copper from a New Jersey construction site using forklifts. In Salt Lake City, thieves stole more than six miles of copper wire from the Utah Department of Transportation along a six-lane highway.

The Department of Energy has estimated that copper theft costs businesses $1 billion a year. Arizona, California, Maine, Tennessee and a number of other states have recently passed laws cracking down on the theft by ensuring that scrap metal dealers are registered and mandating that recyclers keep more detailed customer records for copper purchases. The U.S. Senate has even considered an anti-copper theft bill, which would make the crime a federal offense. The bill hasn’t been brought up for a vote.

At the center of the copper stealing sprees is simple economics: In 2011, copper prices hit $4 a pound, four times the price of the metal only three years earlier. It has stayed above $3 since then. The demand for scrap metal in China and the ease with which wires and pipes can be melted down has led thieves to undertake raids on cemeteries, abandoned homes and electrical substations, according to police reports.

According to the non-profit National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), thefts of all metals rose by about one-third over the last three years. Between 2010 and 2012, there were 33,375 metal insurance claims, 96 percent of which were for stolen copper.

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If you still don’t believe copper theft has gotten out of control, it’s even happened at the offices of NICB – the very organization that tracks copper theft.

“Just two weeks ago, the office where I am sitting right now had all 12 rooftop AC units ripped apart and the copper coils and other parts stolen,” says NICB’s Frank Scafidi. “The same thing happened in my former office about two miles away in August of 2011. Oh, and a guy was found dead from electrocution about a mile from my previous office while attempting to strip copper wire from an abandoned City of Sacramento athletic field.”