Companies Strike at Copper Thieves


"Nationwide, utilities have been hardest hit by metal theft, losing about $1B a year."

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jeffry Scott and Ty Tagami

As copper thieves have grown bolder—with Atlanta police reporting 150 incidents in June alone—so have efforts to thwart the crime wave that has soared along with the price of the metal.

It's difficult for investigators to pin down where stolen metal originated, so the cases are hard to prosecute. One filched air conditioning coil or spool of copper wire looks like any other.

Without positive identification by the victim, prosecutors can't win. "They won't even take it to court," said Joe Bulat, co-chairman of the Southeast Metal Task Force, a clearinghouse for information on metal thefts.

A Carrollton-based company is using new technology to fight back. Southwire, North America's largest manufacturer of wire and cable, has given prosecutors evidence they've used successfully in court—etching copper wire with a unique code, which for prosecutors is the equivalent of fingerprints on a crime weapon.

Since 2003, the price of copper has gone from around 70 cents to about $4 per pound. Theft of the metal has become a nuisance across metro Atlanta, especially as the recession has left a growing number of big buildings empty.

Nationwide, utilities have been hardest hit by metal theft, losing about $1B a year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Utilities are fighting back. In January, the industry increased its reward from $500 to $3,000 for information leading to copper theft conviction and pressed prosecutors to charge thieves with more serious crimes.

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