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Scrap Yards Called On To Clamp Down On Metal Theft

Metal Scrap
Metal is such a hot commodity, theft of scrap has become an issue.

There are some commodities many haulers and recyclers are shying away from, such as glass. But metals are not hard-to-unload materials. That’s the good news. The bad news, however, is that metal is such a hot commodity, theft of scrap has become an issue. The Department of Energy estimates copper theft alone costs the domestic industry about $1 billion annually.  

The impact goes beyond the economics. There are also public welfare issues. Thieves have stripped wire from utilities’ transformers, leaving communities powerless. Metal has been taken from irrigation systems, resulting in massive crop loss. In extreme cases, buildings have blown up after being robbed of copper pipes. And in Jackson, Miss., multiple warning sirens were disabled before a tornado after thieves lifted the devices’ metal.

Recyclers are attempting to clamp down by teaming with law enforcement and creating their own tools to catch culprits. Some scrap yards are going as far as to thumbprint incoming sellers.

“Recyclers have to be on guard … to be sure they are not accepting stolen material,” says Brady Mills, Institute of Scrap Metal Recycling Industries (ISRI) director of law enforcement outreach. “Each state has its own laws, but generally recyclers are required to get sellers’ IDs and, more than likely, take their photograph. They must detail what they receive and keep accurate records of every transaction.”

Scrap theft alert

The trade organization launched scraptheftalert.com, a free, web based- system with about 21,000 users. The base includes predominantly recyclers and law enforcement, but corporate security personnel, power companies, communication companies are also users.

If a theft occurs, users can upload descriptions of the items to the site. Registered users within 100 miles of the incident receive an email alert containing that description and a law enforcement contact.

“It’s a good tool to keep recycling yards up on suspicious materials coming in,” Mills says. “And it’s a good tool to inform law enforcement of what’s stolen in their areas and what may be stolen down the road based on trends."

Some items must be brought to recycling centers by authorized personnel. This includes material with a city name on it, whether a manhole cover, cemetery plaque or historical marker. Railroad materials are also proprietary.

But plenty of metal is not identifiable, such as copper wires in homes. Good records at least enable recyclers to know who brought in a given material, how much and when.

Strengthening the connection with law enforcement

Mills attends conferences of law enforcement associations to talk about how the industry and government can work together. He recently took investigators from the Arkansas attorney general’s office and the attorney general herself along with local law enforcement to a scrap yard to get an insider’s view on operations. It was an opportunity for recyclers to see what law enforcement needs and what recyclers can provide to them.

Sterling, Va.-based Potomac Metals buys material at its seven scrap metal yards.

“The first thing we do is record a seller’s driver’s license; make, model and tag of the vehicle, which is the state law,” says Eric Zwilsky, Potomac Metals vice president.

Voluntarily, the company also photographs everything it buys.

Still, the company has unknowingly bought stolen material, including from an individual who was robbing a government facility of brass.

“We had a notice come through scapmetalalert.com. We informed all our buyers to be on the lookout,” says Zwilsky

The material came into one of Potomac Metals’ yards two days after the alert. Staff told the suspect they were waiting for their check signer while they awaited the police. The individual was arrested on site.

“Even though it was stolen about 200 miles from our facility we were able to id it. It was about a $5,000 sale to us, and I am sure of a lot more value to the government,” says Zwilsky.

Tag and hold?

Some legislators are pushing for regulations requiring scrap metal yards to tag and hold scrap for a specified time before processing and selling it.

“It would be impossible to do when you are buying thousands of tons unless you have mega warehouse space, and it would be a huge investment in man hours to hold that much unprocessed, unbaled and unboxed material,” says Zwilsky.

“We fought against ‘Tag and Hold.’ We think taking pictures is better.”

Meanwhile, says Mills, the industry wants to work with law enforcement.

“[Scrap metal yards] don’t want to take stolen materials,” he says. “They can be fined or shut down. They don’t want to risk their businesses.”

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