Metal theft is one of the fastest growing crimes in the country. Copper, aluminum, nickel, stainless steel and scrap iron have become the desired target of thieves looking to make a quick buck. An increase in demand for these metals from Asian markets such as China and India has created a thriving international scrap trade, resulting in much higher prices.
Of particular concern is copper, which is found in gutters, flashings, downspouts, water lines and electrical wiring – all of which can be quickly stripped from vacant buildings, industrial facilities, commercial buildings and construction sites. Air conditioning units are especially attractive, and are often tampered with or stolen for their copper coils and pipes that connect to HVAC systems. The metal is then sold to recycling companies and scrap yards for a nice profit.
A painful lesson for businesses
Wily thieves use a variety of methods to locate and steal metals. Some pose as renovation contractors while stripping copper from vacant homes. Others use a buddy method for stealing empty, stainless steel beer kegs, with one person driving a getaway truck and the other grabbing the kegs. A few resourceful criminals have used Google Earth to identify large amounts of metal (such as spools of wire) stored outdoors.
For businesses that run the risk of metal theft from a construction site, or transport metal or items containing metal to a job site or customer, an inland marine policy is essential for additional protection.
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Preventing metal theft
To combat metal theft, more and more states and municipalities have passed laws tightening the restrictions on scrap dealers. In some instances, purchases of scrap metal are required to be held in reserve for a week or more before being resold in case they have been stolen. In other instances, states require dealers to record the seller’s name, address and driver's license.
The best defense is to prevent metal theft at the source. Consider these measures to reduce your risk:
- Install a security camera with a video recorder and keep recordings for a sufficient period.
- Secure all equipment and scrap metals in locked buildings or in well-lighted areas secured by fencing. Better yet, use a perimeter security system with contact alarms or motion detectors, or install a 6-foot perimeter fence with barbed wire at the top (as allowed by local regulations) that has locked gates.
- Post "No Trespassing" placards or signs indicating the presence of a surveillance or security system.
- Remove access to buildings and roofs, such as trees, ladders, scaffolding, Dumpsters and accumulated materials such as pallet piles.
- Secure your building access with deadbolts and door and window locks.
- Trim or remove shrubbery or other landscaping that allows criminals to hide from view on your property.
- Increase exterior lighting and protect fixtures (such as AC units) with locked metal cages.
Also change some of your policies and procedures and:
- Mark metals with the company's name using paint, hard-to-remove decals or engraving equipment.
- Make sure someone is present when supplies such as copper wiring or pipe are delivered at a job site so the materials can be immediately secured.
- Don't receive supplies earlier than you need them. The longer metal is onsite and unused, the longer it's at risk of theft.
- Develop a relationship with local law enforcement. Ask for their guidance in preventing metal theft at your business and what to do if a theft occurs.
- Create a master list of all of your equipment and bulk metal (if applicable) and include pictures. Providing the list to your insurance agent and the authorities might help in recovering the items.
- Talk with your insurance agent. Make sure you have adequate insurance to cover metal theft, and be sure to update your agent as your business changes. For example, if your building becomes partially or fully vacant, your coverage may change without you realizing it.
If a metal theft does occur, call the police immediately so that local recyclers and scrap dealers are alerted. Be sure to preserve the crime scene, including tire tracks, shoe tracks and fingerprints. This evidence could be used to help prosecute the thieves if they are caught.