AMU Homeland Security Opinion

Copper and Other Metal Thefts Could Weaken Homeland and Domestic Security Infrastructures

By Shelley Smith
Copper theft has reached an epidemic level that is not only affecting the United States, but is international, creating immense global havoc.
As of January 11, 2008, the London Metal Exchange reported that copper prices continue to climb because of the heavy demand from China. The price shot up $50 from Thursday’s closing price and by Friday was quoted at $7,240/7,250 (U.S.) per ton – an eight percent rise.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy the theft of copper and losses to businesses hovers around $1 billion and is having a major impact on commercial businesses and farms. The increase in copper theft has disrupted the flow of electricity, slowed down construction projects, and knocked out irrigation networks across the United States.
Amtrak has suffered a number of copper thefts from its repair shops and locomotive engines. This can cause a threat to national security by disrupting day-to-day services that can produce outages or prevent vital communications, possibly endangering the safety of the public and railway passengers. From January 2006 through March 2007, electric utility companies in 42 states had reported 270 copper thefts, causing millions in maintenance repairs within the United States.
Other metals that thieves are attracted to are the shiny metal plating belonging to the platinum family and other. On a national security level there is the concern about theft of other minerals and the minerals rhodium and palladium that is used to coat switches and for nuclear bombs.
Overseas, many states are feeling the same effects of copper thievery and the theft of aluminum. Thieves are going as far as taking the spouts and gutters from buildings and churches and copper sculptures from parks and tombstone decorations.
With copper rates soaring due to the demand from China and other fast-growing Asian countries, the stored elements in wire and other products have created a booming black market. Self-styled dealers freely buy and sell scrap that is obviously stolen. A most extreme case was in Russia in Khabarovsk in Eastern Russia. Russian scrap metal thieves stole a 200-ton metal bridge in a night-time raid that was part of the only road leading to a local heating plant.
In a race to deter this type of crime, Hungary and South Africa are setting examples of having to restructure laws, legislation, and law enforcement approaches in efforts to deter these crimes.
Also, the Zambian president, Levy Mwanawasa is considering tapping into the higher copper prices by increasing tax revenues from the mining sector.
In the United States to help deter copper and aluminum theft, a partnership was developed between the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC) and the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI). The ISRI has developed an online Theft Alert System, which sends e-mail notifications to scrap dealers about reported thefts by law enforcement agencies. Information can be found at:
As new state bills and laws are being considered to tighten control on copper and metal theft, it has been suggested metal theft sentencing be changed from a misdemeanor to a felony. On January 1, 2008, Illinois passed a new state law that requires scrap metal processors maintain records of those individuals who sell scrap metal valued at $100 or more and that the information be made available to law enforcement.
Rather then wait for the passage of new legislation, companies and others have requested that nanotechnology be used in the battle against copper wire theft. Nanotechnology is a traceable technology and marks equipment and copper wire so it can be identified after it has been stolen. Another method is the application of data dots – spray-on microscopic labels that adhere to copper wire and other equipment.
Employees and the public should be encouraged to stay vigilant: report any suspicious activities of theft or other crimes immediately to local authorities. Safely get license plate numbers or other descriptive information about the thieves, report any burning of telephone cable or electrical wires. When away make certain to securely lock your house, outbuildings and sheds. Boost your neighborhood watch programs to include information of copper or other metal thefts. Store all tools and wire cutters and any materials containing copper in a secured building. Other common targets for copper thieves are vacant houses, buildings and apartments. Consider motion detectors and night security guards.
If you are interested in reviewing history on metals you may go to the following site: “A Short History of Metals; Copper Development Association; U.S. Mint”.
Other sources:
OCAST Reserves $1.5 million For Enhanced Nanotechnology Program
Oncor Uses Nanotechnology in Fight Against Copper Wire Theft
PSC Warns Against Copper Theft
Copper Theft Down at Puget Sound Energy
U.S. Department of Energy

About the Author
Shelley Smith is an expert in analysis and research on national and international law, foreign affairs, criminal justice systems and the psychology of criminal behavior. Smith is currently working toward a B.A in Intelligence Studies with a focus on analysis and terrorism at American Military University.

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