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The rise of the Internet makes close coordination with local law enforcement key to nab-a-scrap-thief efforts

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Whether it's a large haul of stainless steel pipe taken from outside Yankee Stadium in New York or some scrap at a construction site in rural West Virginia, metal thefts present more than a supersized headache for the recycling industry.

A nationwide wave of metal thefts that began several years ago has now moved way past the nuisance stage for most recyclers. For some, it's turning into day-to-day trench warfare in a battle against not only the thieves but also a rising tide of new paperwork and record-keeping requirements.

In some areas, regional efforts by scrap companies to combat thefts are paying off. The Middle Georgia Metal Theft Committee is one example. The alliance of recyclers, other local businesses and law enforcement officers has been credited by Georgia police for several important arrests. In Macon alone, metal thefts fell to just nine in 2008—when the regional alliance was operating—from 84 the previous year.

There's general agreement in the industry that close coordination with local law enforcement agencies is essential. "We're seeing a number of significant success stories," said Gary Bush, who heads the Metal Theft Prevention unit at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI).

This coordination led to the arrest of two individuals in Connecticut, according to Bush, citing a report filed with the Brookfield Police Department last July by J. Frederick Construction Co. about the theft of some 3,000 pounds of 8-inch seamless stainless pipe in 4- to 5-foot lengths being used to build "terrorist" barricades around the new Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.

Det. Stephen P. Coelho of the Brookfield Police Department used ISRI's scrap theft alert system (www.ScrapTheftAlert.com) to send out a theft report on July 9 and seven days later received a call from James Murphy at LaJoie's Auto & Scrap Recycling Inc. in Norwalk, Conn., "telling me that he believed the stolen material was being presented for sale" by two individuals.

"I e-mailed some photographs of the missing material, and he told me this was definitely the stolen material," Coelho wrote in a letter to Bush. He then went to Lajoie's Auto with the owner of the construction company, who identified the material involved along with another batch of stolen stainless plate taken from outside the stadium. Fortunately, one of the suspects, eager to escape when he figured out that police were en route, "was kind enough" to leave his Connecticut driver's license behind at the scrapyard. After some additional investigation, the Brookfield police arrested two brothers and charged them with second-degree larceny.

A similar scenario in the mountains of West Virginia involved close coordination between Elkins Metal Recycling and a local police department. Asked if metal thefts were a problem at the medium-sized recycler, office manager Mandi Reams said, "We actually had one incident here this morning. We first heard that some metal was missing from a construction site just out of town. Then these two guys came in to try to sell it. We had to verify multiple things, and in the process we called the police. We told them (the thieves) that our computer was down so they stayed here (waiting for payment). They were actually standing around here when the police arrived (and arrested them)."

In California, Douglas Kramer, president of Kramer Metals Inc., Los Angeles, believes the new series of metal theft measures signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger "were completely unnecessary." He said California "had a very good law already on the books" before a series of new legislation was passed.

"Anytime when we are being put in a position of being held responsible for someone else's crime .?.?. that's not right," he said in an interview. "The legitimate scrap industry has never been one where people tolerate stealing. We are as much a victim as a utility company or anyone else in this .?.?. unfortunately, when scrap is stolen from scrapyards it's completely impossible to determine where it came from or whose property it is."

Kramer's biggest problem with the new set of California laws isn't the paperwork burden, but rather the three-day hold on materials and payment. "It tends to criminalize our customers, and this is simply not right," he said. "Treating scrap customers, good customers, like they are in a pawn shop; I don't like that."

At Schupan Industrial Recycling in Kalamazoo, Mich., retail operations manager Shay Schupan said the "combination of Michigan's new metal theft law and the ISRI alert system" helped his company catch thieves. "We had two young men bring in new copper piping which was bent to fit into the trunk of their vehicle," he said. "We asked them to fill out a material documentation sheet and they had a lot of trouble with it. Our buyer became suspicious because of (their) bad grammar (used on the form) and just the way they were behaving."

Michigan's new Nonferrous Metals Regulatory Act, which took effect last April, has a tag-and-hold provision, he said. "We put a 'tag and hold' on it and two hours later an alert came in via the ISRI system. The police followed up with a phone call to make sure we got the alert, partly because they'd never used the alert system before," Schupan said, noting that the material matched the tag-and-hold alert and arrests followed shortly thereafter.

Asked if the new Michigan law was burdensome with its paperwork requirements, Schupan said he'd found it "more valuable" than not. "It has created a little more legwork but it's helped out the police, enabling them to respond quickly to these incidents, and there's definitely less room for scrap dealers who aren't so honest. We make it a priority to have a good standing relationship with all of the local authorities," he said, noting that they have been impressed with the alert system and how easy and effective it can be.

MARTYN CHASE


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