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Stiffer federal penalties said needed to fight copper theft

Keywords: Tags  copper theft, federal penalties, metals losses, American Copper Council, ISRI, CargoNet, William Johnson, Keith Lewis Scott Cornell

WASHINGTON — Tougher federal penalties are needed to really make a difference in the fight against copper theft, those involved in tracking and investigating metals losses said.

Federal legislation targeting copper theft exists, but it differs between states. A harsher federal penalty would act as a deterrent to criminals and make prosecution more attractive to law enforcers, attendees of the American Copper Council’s meeting in Washington were told April 25.

"If there are real penalties, it sends a message back to the street that copper theft isn’t as easy as it used to be," according to William "Billy" Johnson, director of political and public affairs at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), Washington.

Copper theft has targeted mostly cathode and wire, and left companies seeking new ways to prevent losses, which averaged around $188,000 per shipment in 2012, CargoNet vice president of operations Keith Lewis said.

Jersey City, N.J.-based CargoNet aims to prevent cargo theft and increase recovery rates through secure and controlled information sharing among theft victims, their business partners, law enforcement and the National Insurance Crime Bureau, according to its website.

But even when thieves are caught, getting case traction with prosecutors can be tricky, Lewis said.

"Crimes against the person take a higher priority against crimes against property, and the FBI views cargo theft as being a violent crime. But that was in the old days, when cargo theft often happened as hijackings," he said. "Now that isn’t usually the case, so it just isn’t deemed a priority."

With copper theft competing against high-end crime for prosecution, industry participants have to ensure they do everything possible to prevent thefts, conference attendees were told.

"You need to do everything you can do that doesn’t require a (law enforcement) badge," Scott Cornell, national manager of Travellers Investigative Services’ specialty investigations group, said. "You shouldn’t be putting the load completely on the police; if they have a crime against a person on the desk, it helps to have done the work."

This means developing good working links with local police ahead of turning to the law for help.

The industry needs to "dig its well before it is thirsty" by establishing links with law enforcement in advance, Lewis said.

"The reality is that we’ve got the onus on our own shoulders, as an industry—we’ve got to work together as an industry to help ourselves," he said. "You need someone to activate the troops and get things done for you, and that requires a connection with law enforcement."

ISRI has worked for years to stamp out metals theft, with more than two-thirds of recyclers reporting being a victim of metals theft in the past year. It has developed, an online theft-reporting system designed to help recover stolen material, secure arrests and facilitate prosecution.

Other methods, like GPS tracking, security measures and theft-deterrent devices are also being employed.

Baltimore-based logistics firm Cowan Systems LLC, which moves some 12,000 loads of copper per year, turns drivers down daily for failing to meet the necessary standards, according to Chris Cott, the company’s metals movement specialist.

This has led criminals to get smarter in the way they steal, including the use of cyber theft—stealing identifications of legitimate truck drivers and using the false ID to get access to metal.

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