RALEIGH – Businesses are coping with a rising wave of copper thefts, often having to replace $10,000 air conditioning units and other machinery that contains – actually, once contained – copper wiring and tubing.

Across the U.S., thefts of semi-precious metals that involved insurance more than doubled in frequency in 2010, and increased by more than 37 percent in 2011, to 11,700, according to a study of insurance claims data by the National Insurance Crime Bureau. About 96 percent of those claims involved copper.

The study ranked North Carolina sixth in total number of metal thefts in the three-year period.

The study didn't track increases in individual states, but police officers, mechanical system professionals and representatives of large businesses in the Triangle say the problem has grown here along with the rest of the nation.

Theft of copper becomes more common every time prices for the material increase, they say. The problem cropped up most notably in 2005 and 2006 during the U.S. building boom, but faded somewhat during the recession, these people say.

More recently, the economic recovery, though tepid, combined with continuing growth in China to drive copper's wholesale spot price up to $4.50 a pound in July 2011. That's up from less than $1.50 a pound in early 2009, according to data from the New York Mercantile Exchange. While spot prices have eased to about $3.70 over the past 10 months, people who use and deal in copper say thieves' demand for it has not.

Brett Chappell, a marketing manager for Raleigh HVAC contractor Allen Kelly & Co., says thefts of air conditioners from commercial buildings have grown much more common in just the past six months.

It can cost anywhere from $3,500 to $25,000 to replace a commercial air conditioner, depending on its size, Chappell says. The thief’s profit is sometimes as little as 1 percent of that, he says.

While homes are also sometimes targeted, Chappell says commercial buildings are more vulnerable because they and surrounding areas are usually empty of people at night.

Progress Energy and municipal utilities have also experienced significant increases in copper thefts. Copper derives much of its value from its conductivity; it’s used most often in electrical wiring.

“We are also beginning to ... see cases of people stealing other metals that they mistakenly identify as copper,” Progress spokesman Jeff Brooks says. “It’s a very big risk to take for something that is basically worthless.” Brooks declined to quantify the Raleigh-based utility’s losses from copper theft.

Thieves are occasionally electrocuted during their heists.

Stolen metal is often sold to scrap yards or metal recyclers. But Greg Brown, who owns Raleigh Metal Recycling and similar facilities in Goldsboro and Michigan, says he and other recycling companies are working with authorities to fend off such sales: North Carolina recyclers hired a lobbyist in December to push for tougher and more effective laws on thieves.

Brown has also installed hidden cameras at an automated teller machine at his facility and makes recordings available to police who investigate thefts of metal that his business might unwittingly buy, he says. And the business scans sellers’ drivers licenses to help foil thefts, he adds.

Brown estimates that roughly half of the non-ferrous metals he takes in are eventually sold to Chinese companies.

CONTACTS

Raleigh Metal Recycling
Greg Brown, 734-740-9514
gbrown@raleighscrapmetalrecycling.com