05/14/08 — Precious metal theft a problem

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Precious metal theft a problem

By Nick Hiltunen
Published in News on May 14, 2008 2:06 PM

The surging price of copper has created a huge demand for the metal used as a key building component and thieves have pounced on the value, making copper one of the most stolen items in Wayne County.

It can be easy money and copper thieves have struck construction sites, existing homes, businesses and even the refrigerators at convenience stores in their hunt for it.

The News-Argus tracked theft reports for a 30-day period from April to May in Wayne County. On average, a copper theft was reported every day.

News-Argus Video Report

"Copper has become extremely valuable," Wayne County Sheriff, Carey Winders said. "We have seen an extremely large amount of copper taken."

Goldsboro Police Department Investigator Dave Cloutier handles reports of copper thefts in the city.

From January 2007 until last month, the department received an estimated 275 reports of stolen copper, Cloutier said.

Many lawmen see drugs as one reason for the rash of copper thefts.

"Probably 90 percent of it's drug related," Sheriff's Department Capt. Tom Effler said. "They're trying to find, to get cash to go buy them a fix."

Authorities said they are not sure where thieves go to cash in on stolen metals, or even if metals stolen from this area are recycled locally.

At the behest of N.C. Salvage owner Charles Daniels, the newspaper met with the scrap dealers at his U.S. 117 location.

Jimmie Foss, owner of Foss Auto Recycling, and Dale Bevell of N.C. Salvage's across-the-street neighbor Wayne Auto Salvage.

Young said he could not attend, Kemp Recycling and Goldsboro Iron and Metal did not return calls asking company officials to participate.

Ironically, copper use was down slightly in the United States in 2006, according to the copper industry advocate, the Copper Development Association.

The association reported that national usage dipped from 7,660 million pounds in 2005 to about 7,461 million pounds in 2006.

The pliable, conductive metal is used extensively as a building material and for channeling heat and electricity.

Authorities have recognized the increase in copper thefts and have toughened laws regarding the transport, sale and possession of the metal.

And residents have become more aware of copper thefts, investigators said.

"The citizens in Goldsboro are getting a lot better -- we just caught two guys attempting to steal some copper from a vacant house. People in the neighborhoods are actually calling us a lot more," Cloutier said.

Cloutier said because each police officer can only cover so much ground, the efforts of honest citizens are important when rooting out crime. It's much easier to prosecute someone when he or she is caught in the act of a theft, he said.

On Dec. 1 of last year, a new state laws took effect covering not only copper, but all ferrous (iron-containing), and non-ferrous metals.

Perhaps the biggest change people selling metals will notice is the requirement for photo identification. The law now requires metal recyclers to make a photocopy or electronic scan of driver's licenses and other such ID.

The new statute also requires metals recyclers to keep records of people they buy scrap metals from. Even when the ID is on file, the metals recycler are required to check the ID of the seller at the time of each sale.

Those records must include the weight of the scrap and the date sold, a description of the of the regulated metals, a physical address of where the scrap was obtained and a signed statement from the seller or a representative that they have a legal right to sell the metals.

Local authorities noted some similarities between the new copper theft measures and those enacted for pawn shops, and also the regulations for pharmacies who sell pseudoephedrine. Photo ID is now required for buying the decongestant, once available readily over the counter, but also used illicitly as a main ingredient in methamphetamine.

Daniels' secretary Marie Smith said the new laws did not affect N.C. Salvage.

"We've always done it anyway," Mrs. Smith said. "We require ID, we write checks for all scrap, ferrous and non-ferrous. We've been doing it for fifteen years."

Foss said he trains employees to be vigilant about watching for the signs of stolen goods.

"If it's something in question, we'll call the sheriff's department and ask them if anything has happened," Foss said. "We have cameras. We film everybody."

The law allows authorities to inspect any purchased metals possessed by the recycler and all the records a metals recycler is now required to maintain during normal business hours.

Metals recyclers must wait a week before selling or altering regulated metals they buy.

Recyclers who don't keep the regulated metals they purchase for seven days can be charged with a felony.

But if a suspect is caught and proven guilty in a court of law, the court can order the convicted person to pay restitution to the recycler, who may have incurred damages or loss.

Anyone who is caught violating this law and convicted will be charged with a Class I misdemeanor. Further violations are Class I felonies.

New laws also makes it illegal to travel in a vehicle carrying more than 25 pounds of copper without a receipt.