When scrap copper prices hit an all-time high last spring at more than four dollars a pound, it was a golden age for thieves. Those peak prices were thought to have been driven up by market speculators, but with the economic crisis, copper and other metal prices have dropped precipitously. Many recyclers believe that scrap copper is now in the more realistic trading range of $1.40 to $1.70.

Lower copper prices are good for electrical contractors, but stopping the theft is in everyone’s best interests. That is what recently prompted electric utilities in Georgia to band together and offer a $500 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of people involved in copper theft. Copper thefts from substations, utility poles and transmission lines are a growing problem for the utility industry. Thefts threaten the reliability of the electric system, but more importantly, damaged lines pose a danger of electrocution to anyone in the area, especially utility workers and electricians, not to mention the thieves themselves.

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates copper theft costs our economy more than $1 billion a year. That’s not just the commodity value of the stolen metal. It includes collateral damage from ripping out wires, pipes, fixtures and equipment. The number of vacant, foreclosed homes has exacerbated the problem. Copper thieves hurt the many parties involved in new construction, and that ultimately hurts electricians.

The Georgia utilities are aggressively working with law enforcement agencies and scrap recyclers to apprehend the perpetrators. This reward is one tool to encourage public assistance and will be paid to anyone who provides information that leads directly to the arrest and conviction of someone involved in metals theft from a utility property in Georgia.

Anyone who observes suspicious activity around an electric substation or other utility facility is asked to get a physical description of the alleged thief, the vehicle being used, the license plate number and call a statewide hotline, 877.732.8717. If a theft is in progress, the witness should notify 911 first and then call the hotline. It remains to be seen if other states will follow suit.