In April 2008, when tornadoes were threatening Jackson, Mississippi, many residents were not alerted to the severe weather because five tornado-warning sirens didn’t work; the sirens’ copper wiring had been stolen. A month earlier in Polk County, Fla., nearly 4,000 residents were left without power after thieves stripped copper wire from a transformer at an electric company facility. And in late 2007, vandals removed 300 feet of copper wire from a Federal Aviation Administration tower in Ohio, threatening to interrupt communications between in-flight aircraft and air traffic controllers.
Copper theft is still on the rise, and it was only a matter of time before federal authorities recognized it as a major problem. The FBI is planning a campaign against copper theft. A recent criminal intelligence report scoped out the problem and is driving new solutions. The following are among the findings:
• “The demand for copper from developing nations, such as China and India, is creating a robust international copper trade,” and as the global supply of copper continues to tighten, “the market for illicit copper will likely increase,” the report states. From 2001–2008, the price of the metal has increased by more than 500 percent.
• The thieves may act individually or as part of organized groups and are interested in the quick cash they get from selling copper to scrap metal dealers.
• Their targets include electrical substations, railroads, security and emergency services, and other sensitive sites.
According to the FBI, copper thefts have been responsible for shutting down railway systems and even 911 emergency systems. Electrical substations are targets for copper thieves.
In the report, the FBI spoke with nearly 150 people from local and state law enforcement and with officials from railroad and energy companies. It found most copper thefts involve a relatively small amount of money, often take place in rural areas, and are investigated by local law enforcement agencies. Because of these facts, the implications of most of these crimes fell below the radar of federal law enforcement.
Now, the FBI has established several informal task forces between local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to combat copper theft.
The FBI said, while copper thieves may not intend to compromise critical infrastructure, they can still be charged with more weighty federal crimes. In one such case, the FBI has charged a copper thief with a more serious federal statute that can carry up to a 20-year sentence. The direct value cost of the stolen copper is relatively small, but the FBI has taken into account the lives the thief affected and put at risk.