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Networking United States

Copper Thieves Jeopardize US Infrastructure 578

coondoggie supplies an excerpt from Network World that might make you consider a lock for your pipes: "The FBI today ratcheted up the clamor to do something more substantive about the monumental growth of copper theft in the US. In a report issued today the FBI said the rising theft of the metal is threatening the critical infrastructure by targeting electrical substations, cellular towers, telephone land lines, railroads, water wells, construction sites, and vacant homes for lucrative profits. Copper thefts from these targets have increased since 2006; and they are currently disrupting the flow of electricity, telecommunications, transportation, water supply, heating, and security and emergency services, and present a risk to both public safety and national security." (A July, 2006 post on Ethan Zuckerman's blog gives an idea of how widespread cable theft has affected internet infrastructure, and basketmaking, in Africa.)
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Copper Thieves Jeopardize US Infrastructure

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  • Special license... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by cayenne8 ( 626475 ) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @04:29PM (#25979649) Homepage Journal
    maybe make it where local, private people can't sell copper to recyclers?

    If you had to be an official 'something' or licensed...that would stop a lot of criminals I'd think?

    • by tripdizzle ( 1386273 ) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @04:32PM (#25979693)
      This is something that has been going on for a while, and recyclers know stolen copper when they see it and buy it anyway because its cheap. I dont think licensing sellers would cut down on the theft, it may just create the licensed seller as a middleman for the exchange.
      • by popeye44 ( 929152 ) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @06:41PM (#25981869)

        If I go to a recycler here in Fresno with much more than half a bag they are going to ask me where I work or where I got the wire. They even call employers to ensure the employees have permission to sell the wire. They generally have quit taking wire from people with shopping carts...

        We have lost in this area just "Fresno" around 14 miles of wire in a very short period of time. And to quantify this even further that is ONLY the wire ran by the state. This does not include city or county lighting losses. We've had the same intersections robbed 4-5 times. Yes we have police watching them but they can only do so much.

        Now something else to consider. These idiots who are stealing this wire are taking it from energized signals. We have battery backups and LED lights in our signals however that means nothing when you can't get a signal from the backup to the light pole because the wire is gone. Now we have an extremely dangerous situation. A Dark Signal. No flashing red no lights. No streetlights depending on how much wire is gone. All we need is a fatality to hang some dumbass bum with a murder charge. Not only that the governing entity will probably get a lawsuit for not having a lit intersection. It's a BAD BAD THING(tm)

        So to resolve this problem we now buy Aluminum wire. As anyone who has worked with aluminum wire can attest this is not really a good solution electrically. However Fiscally it does work as the thieves are at least less likely to continue cutting an intersection apart once they realize it's not copper.

    • many places require a contractors license or business license but it's a matter of corruption and greed. Someone walks up to you with salvaged copper and claims they pulled it from a ware house on there property what will you do. Plus it's not hard to melt the copper down and sell it in block form.

    • They would just send it abroad of find someone who is willing to ingore the rules for a cut of the profits.

      These kinds of crimes are very hard to stop. I don't know a good way to do it.

    • by EvilRyry ( 1025309 ) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @04:36PM (#25979787) Journal

      So if I replace the pipes in my house I need a license to recycle them?

      Maybe if you needed a license to post on Slashdot, there would be less stupid comments.

    • by erroneus ( 253617 ) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @04:51PM (#25980047) Homepage

      ...and while you're at it, let's just expand the idea to suggest you must bear the mark of the beast before you should be allowed to buy or sell anything.

    • by raymansean ( 1115689 ) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @04:52PM (#25980061)
      My dad is a licensed HVAC contractor the way the laws are written in this state, if he does not have an invoice for every atom of cooper on his truck he can be charged with cooper theft. I hardly think that such a law is a solution. If we attempted to solve the problem, people who have nothing better to do than steal cooper to get their next fix. Then we would not have to have such stupid laws. No I do not have a solution, but making my father have a invoice for all the cooper on his truck is silly. The problem with being a licensed something or another is that it is easy to forge such documents. Unless there was a nationwide database of licensed somethigns or anothers, but then you get into the issue of privacy. You can have maximum freedom or maximum security but you can not have both, and any attempt to have more of one will result in you having less of the other. So be careful what you want in the terms of security without looking at what you will need give up in the means of freedom.
    • by Hatta ( 162192 ) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @05:51PM (#25981133) Journal

      I have a better idea, find a more productive way for these individuals to make money. Ripping up copper is hard, and often dangerous work that pays for shit. Considering that these people are willing to do hard work for shitty pay, lets give them a job installing copper instead of tearing it down.

      Yes, there's some portion of society that's unemployable. Convicted criminals, drug addicts, etc. So what? If we don't provide them alternatives, they will do what they have to do to get by. This is a choice we have to make as a society. Do we lose more by providing jobs to the unreliable, or by allowing them to rob us blind?

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by eth1 ( 94901 )

        Except spending two hours stealing $200 worth of copper and driving it across town to the scrap dealer/fence means they're making well over 10x per hour what they'd make installing the same copper.

  • by hairykrishna ( 740240 ) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @04:29PM (#25979659)
    My housemate works in an accident and emergency operating theater. They had some guy in the other night who was stealing copper from a substation. His tools of choice? Axe and a kitchen knife with an uninsulated handle. Apparently he looked a bit like a pretzel.
    • by effigiate ( 1057610 ) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @05:58PM (#25981247)

      Substation theft is very common. There are incidents of copper bus (thick copper bars) just being cut through and taken. The theives don't cut all of the buswork because that would alert someone when the power went out. The problem is that if you remove 1/4 or 1/3 of the copper, there is a good chance that the remaining copper will heat up and then fail. Copper thieves have shut off the power on more than one occassion to lots of people.

      Knives and hacksaws are relativley common for substation thieves. Apparentley they think that their rubber soled shoes and rubber gloves can keep them safe against 115kV. Sometimes it does, but when it does is ugly.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by dkf ( 304284 )

        Knives and hacksaws are relativley common for substation thieves. Apparentley they think that their rubber soled shoes and rubber gloves can keep them safe against 115kV. Sometimes it does, but when it does is ugly.

        There's a simple way to deal with this. Up the voltage, and the problem becomes self-fixing. And it's not like those idiots can claim that nobody told them it was dangerous: high-voltage substations are well-signed already.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by adolf ( 21054 )

          Well-signed is an understatement. In Lima, Ohio, the power company has rented multiple billboards around town, to warn people not to steal copper from substations. "Cut copper, cut your life," they say, and look something like this [].

    • Including this genius, who was trying to steal ground wires in an electrical substation.

      WARNING:Don't view while eating--Gruesome images! []

    • by nukeade ( 583009 ) <> on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @07:20PM (#25982343) Homepage

      On many parts of a substation, insulation wouldn't matter.

      A friend of mine is the chief engineer for an array of power plants in the area. Apparently he once found the exploded body of a guy who had opened up a 20,000V feeder and was using a screwdriver and a pair of pliers, both insulated. He was dead before the tools ever came into contact with the transformer coils.

      I believe three limbs were broken off by the arc, one arm and both legs, all cauterized so that there was surprisingly little blood.

      The copper thieves have been very successful though: in what he believes was an inside job, some people entered a mothballed plant through a tunnel from a nearby substation and took about $20,000 worth of copper from lines that came directly off of the generator. I believe there were tens of feet of this wire, about 1-2" in diameter, that they removed in chunks and transported out underground.

      The worst case, however, was a bit more scary. At one point some copper thieves got into the same mothballed plant, found a locked door, turned on a forklift and rammed the door with the forklift until the forklift fell down some nearby stairs and got stuck. DHS then got interested in the plant since had the thief made it into this room, he would have been able to shut down power for the entire city of Pittsburgh (the plant was mothballed, but the substation controls in this room were active)! Now the plant's fitted with IR cameras and anyone who gets spotted is likely to be answering some questions courtesy of the DHS cowboys.


  • by SpuriousLogic ( 1183411 ) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @04:30PM (#25979661)
    A friend's parents had passed away, and the house was up for sale. She went over to just do a checkup and noticed it was very cold in the house, however the thermostat was set to 50 (house has radiators). She also noticed no water coming form the faucet. She went into the basement - someone had broken in through a window well and cut out every single pipe in the basement. All the plumbing for the radiators and water supply were all gone.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @05:02PM (#25980233)

      Had some friends in a landscaping, odd jobs business where they were knocking down an old building and trying to save what was worth scraping for the owner to offset costs of a new building somewhat.

      So they had some scrapers come by while they were knocking down a section of the building, who started picking up stuff from their scrap pile and throwing it on their truck. When they were asked what they thought they were doing (getting caught), they unloaded the stuff and had a laugh about it saying they'd just be back later.

      So the guys knocking the place down parked their back-hoe across the only real entrance to the place and parked other machinery on top of the scrap piles. When they came in the next day, the windows were broken out of their equipment and someone had shit in the cabs of the equipment.

      Guys are akin to organized crime in some areas, they work in little teams and do that kinda stuff if you stop them from taking what they think is theirs.

  • Don't Pay Cash (Score:5, Insightful)

    by CohibaVancouver ( 864662 ) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @04:33PM (#25979723)
    This is a huge problem here in Vancouver, Canada. One solution that has been bandied around is requiring the scrap dealers to not pay cash - i.e. if you have copper to sell you get a receipt from the scrap dealer, provide your name & address and in 30 days the dealer mails you a cheque. As most junkies don't have addresses, nor are they prepared to wait 30 days, they'll stop selling copper. The legitimate sellers don't mind waiting 30 days.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by VEGETA_GT ( 255721 )

      actuality Vancover island Rogers internet lines where taken out 2 times because of this. Theafs got into a manhole and just grabbed wire. fiber line came to so Vancover island lost all internet from Rogers. 6 months later SAME exact thing happened. And yes there are redundant lines but that one spot is the OLNY place the lines are in the same place, crossing. Know the tech who got called out

    • Re:Don't Pay Cash (Score:4, Insightful)

      by LandDolphin ( 1202876 ) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @05:06PM (#25980299)
      Whiel a system liek that would work to an extent. It really just creates a market for a middle man who will buy the copper off of the junkies.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Waffle Iron ( 339739 )

      provide your name & address and in 30 days the dealer mails you a cheque.

      I'd go even further than that. Have the scrap dealers issue mail-in rebates instead. That way people would have to spend half an hour assembling forms and ID numbers to submit. Then they'd have to wait 8-10 weeks to get a "check" printed with a fuzzy carbon transfer on a piece of postcard. It would come from some 3rd-party fulfillment house in Arizona, and there's a 60% chance that it will never arrive. No junkie in the world would put up with that hassle.

  • Old News. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by FrameRotBlues ( 1082971 ) <framerotblues AT gmail DOT com> on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @04:34PM (#25979729) Homepage Journal
    Old news. Price of scrap has bottomed out in the past few months. Most scrapyards around here won't even cut a check if you bring in less than $10 worth of scrap... which is a lot of copper these days.

    As an anecdote, there was a construction site we were working on where the plumbers painted all the copper pipes black, to make them look like steel pipes, to thwart would-be thieves during construction where access to the building is very easy.
  • ...everywhere. On the chip level, even, like that prototype I saw a while back.

    Muhuhahahahaha! And then, I, Electro-light-monster-villian, will finally complete my diabolical plan!

  • problem solved? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Dare nMc ( 468959 ) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @04:35PM (#25979755)

    This is one problem I figured the current administration had fixed. []
    Tank the housing market, and copper isn't needed, the price falls, not worth steeling.
    But thieves are apparently slow learners.

  • by russotto ( 537200 ) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @04:35PM (#25979759) Journal

    Just charge up _all_ the copper to at least 50KV. Copper theft will become self-punishing. However, taking a shower will get quite risky.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Lord Apathy ( 584315 )

      I heard a story awhile back about a couple of copper thieves that got what they had coming. Seems these two where fresh off the boat from Somalia or some other 3rd world hell hole. They decided the best way to earn a living was to ply the same trade here as they did there.

      So they slipped over a fence one night to steal some big ass copper bars. They where to stupid to notice the train tracks next door. The copper bars where feed lines to the subway 3rd rail. They say that when the bodies where colle

  • Tragic... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by stei7766 ( 1359091 ) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @04:37PM (#25979799)

    When I was stationed in Balad, Iraq I volunteered at the base hospital. We mostly just helped unload the choppers and what not, sometimes walk around and chat with the patients. Balad was the biggest hospital in theatre so the worst cases eventually made their way there for stabilization before being sent to Germany or sent home (in the case of Iraqis).

    Anyways, I must have seen one or two patients a week come in with severe electrical burns from trying to steal copper wire, most of the time it was kids.

    So its not ALWAYS some idiot out to make a quick buck...people can just get desperate.

  • aluminum (Score:5, Interesting)

    by confused one ( 671304 ) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @04:38PM (#25979827)
    thieves have been stealing the aluminum guard rails, hand rails and brackets off of bridges and overpasses here. Apparently they grab them one or two at a time, and it takes a week or two before they've removed enough that someone notices the missing rails. The aluminum has been found at scrap dealers, cut up into small enough pieces so it's not (easily) identifiable as it's original form.
  • Anonymous Coward (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward

    The price of copper has tanked along with the rest of the world economy. It is now down to around $1.50/lb. The article would have been more timely 6 months ago.

  • by DoofusOfDeath ( 636671 ) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @04:40PM (#25979849)

    The utter selfishness of what the thieves do is mind-boggling.

    I'm not entirely against trading their haul of copper for a small quantity of lead.

  • by girlintraining ( 1395911 ) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @04:43PM (#25979907)

    Hey, this is the free market at work! Why is everyone upset about this? If it wasn't for government regulation we wouldn't have this problem! And now our godless heathen communist government wants to arrest people for simply trying to put those goods back into production? How shameful -- these "criminals" are really the unsung heroes of these regulated markets.


    warning: contains sarcasm.

    • by FooAtWFU ( 699187 ) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @04:56PM (#25980137) Homepage
      Most notions of a "Free Market" assume some sort of, oh, how do you call it, property rights and continuity of ownership, a basic hallmark of organized societies. You are confusing capitalism and the free market with Total Anarchy.

      In fact, the basic premise of Capitalism is that if you have some resources, some capital, if you will (like, say, US dollars, or copper pipes) you get to keep them and invest them in something which will (hopefully) bring you something of value in the future (like, say, a small business, or stock of a big business, or the warmth/comfort/enjoyment of your home).

  • Guy I know at work in the UK used to work installing cables for new power stations back in the 70's. Tells a great story about a cable they were installing underground to link the turbine hall with the substation.

    This cable was about 2 feet diameter and a couple of hundred metres long, and was installed with 2 or 3 meter tails sticking out at either end. Night after the cable was installed, they all came back and cut the tails about a meter below ground level, pulled the rest and made a VERY tidy sum sell
  • just went through it (Score:5, Interesting)

    by sgt scrub ( 869860 ) < minus punct> on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @04:48PM (#25980007)

    I just went through a process of buying a house. I limited myself to $50k cash total with the intent of doing most of the repairs myself. This limited me to HUD and foreclosures. One thing that was a common denominator of all houses listed by HUD was every piece of copper; AC unit, water heater, pipes, fixtures, and electric wires, were completely striped. I was amazed at the efficiency of many of the robberies. Only a few had holes punched randomly in the walls like someone searching for cable and pipes. The vast majority looked as if someone took the time to walk through the house with a metal detector and surgically removed everything. It made me wonder if someone did just watch for houses to hit the HUD list then rob them.

  • by aardwolf64 ( 160070 ) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @04:50PM (#25980037) Homepage

    I just moved into a brand new house last month I had built for me. The pipes in the wall aren't copper... they're PVC, with some kind of transparent rubber tubes connecting them to the fixtures.

  • Ignorant thieves ... (Score:4, Informative)

    by Piranhaa ( 672441 ) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @04:53PM (#25980091)

    We need more incidents like these [].

    The site was clearly labeled with electrical warning signs, yet the idiot still went ahead with attempting to steal the wiring. Long story short, he probably will pay a little more attention to signs...

  • by circletimessquare ( 444983 ) <circletimessquare&gmail,com> on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @05:02PM (#25980251) Homepage Journal

    that's the choke point

    you're not going to stop heroin junkies, you're not going to secure theft sites

    scrap dealers need to be bound up in red tape, and then scrap dealers who skirt the ordinances must be dealt with harshly. you don't have to worry about international or interstate transport, as you are going to destroy your profit margin on what usually amounts to less than $100 for a lot of heavy metal, and you are not usually dealing with criminal masterminds here who would exert the effort. nor do they have the resources to melt it down themselves

    the scrap dealer is the point at which illegal goods get turned into legal goods and profit. scrap dealers therefore are going to have to be tied up in laws and regulations in order to stop this trade, and watched like hawks. chain of custody regulations must be put in place: if you use a bunch of metal, you have to produce paperwork detaling where it came from

  • City lights (Score:4, Informative)

    by cdrguru ( 88047 ) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @05:16PM (#25980509) Homepage

    In Chandler, AZ park lights have had the wire removed for miles. The problem is that it cannot be stopped by law enforcement, which means it pretty much cannot be stopped at all.

    Someone sees some wire, they take the wire and get cash. Nobody wants to infringe upon the rights of the scrap dealers, so accepting of wire from just about anyone is going to continue. We now have people that in order to buy their next HD TV are ripping out the wires to street lights, homes, and anywhere else that wire can be obtained.

    It is an easy way to get cash with very limited risks.

  • bahaha! (Score:5, Funny)

    by __aamisb9940 ( 1132981 ) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @05:20PM (#25980593)

    ..."currently disrupting the flow of electricity"

  • just remember.... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jollyreaper ( 513215 ) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @05:29PM (#25980783)

    As we're condemning these thieves for being fucking assholes, tearing down their own community's infrastructure for the scrap value, just remember that the only difference between them and the financial wizards and CEO's who brought us into our current crisis is a matter of scale.

  • Copper in homes. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by MaWeiTao ( 908546 ) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @05:34PM (#25980847)

    My father is in real estate and has seen an increasing number of homes gutted of their copper, particularly those acquired by banks which have been left vacant. And they really demolish the interiors these homes trying to get at any bit of copper. You can only imagine what that does to property values, but it also has opened up the potential for great investment opportunities.

    And of course, the ridiculous thing is that for all the work they put into stripping the copper they don't earn all that much for it. They'd earn more taking a job at a fast food restaurant. But I suppose if they weren't so stupid they wouldn't be committing crime anyway. It's pathetic.

  • by macraig ( 621737 ) <[moc.liamg] [ta] [giarc.a.kram]> on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @05:37PM (#25980883)

    What I really love are the jokers who cut or break the catalytic converters off of cars (most often SUVs or trucks, more clearance to work) in the hope of recovering the small amount of platinum they contain. Platinum is considerably more scarce than copper, and they keep finding new (ab)uses for it to make it even more scarce.

    I guess you could call all this theft "pre-cycling"? *snicker*

  • Pakistan (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Detritus ( 11846 ) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @05:46PM (#25981035) Homepage
    Years ago, a friend told me that copper theft was such a problem in Pakistan that his employer tired of having to regularly replace segments of their site's high speed data line and replaced it with a microwave relay system. The thieves would just pull one end of the cable down from the telephone pole and attach it to a truck, and then drive down the road, stripping the cable from the poles. Local law enforcement was useless.
  • Just In Time! (Score:4, Informative)

    by longacre ( 1090157 ) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @05:51PM (#25981123) Homepage
    This report comes just as copper prices are plummeting due to the worldwide recession, which should reduce the problem significantly. Prices have dropped 60% since spring.
  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Thursday December 04, 2008 @12:41AM (#25984957) Homepage

    About ten years ago, Stanford used to have a small fenced yard on Stock Farm Road which contained some large stainless steel items, mostly large-diameter plumbing left over from physics experiments. A small radioactive trefoil was posted on the fence, and it had its own street light, but other than that, it wasn't protected.

    I bicycled by this every day on my way to the Stanford barn (I kept a horse on campus at the time). One day I noticed that the fence had been cut and much of the metal was missing. So I stopped by Stanford's toxic waste incinerator ("environmental safety facility") nearby to report this, and was sent to the radiation safety officer. He immediately made some calls.

    Stanford had to have people check all the scrapyards for miles around, but nothing seriously radioactive turned up. The steel had been there for years, and was down to about twice background, so it wasn't a serious hazard. It was from experiments at the old linear accelerator (not SLAC, the little one at Hansen Labs), and had picked up some induced radioactivity. You can't really make stainless all that radioactive. Stanford shipped out the remaining metal to some remote disposal site for burial.

The absent ones are always at fault.