Sheriff addresses scrap metal theft incidents

Keith Strange Civitas media

August 31, 2013

DOBSON — The theft of scrap metal in the county is keeping sheriff’s deputies busy these days, and Sheriff Graham Atkinson said steps are being taken to quash the rise in incidents being reported.

But he says there are things people can do to protect their property.

“I did some research the other day and looked at all the reports from one day, Aug. 25,” he said. “There were 30 reportable incidents that resulted in paperwork being filed, and out of those, six were scrap metal thefts. That accounts for one-fifth of what we did that day.”

Atkinson said that while that one day provides only a snapshot of how much the incidents of metal thefts has risen, “it’s not going to vary drastically.”

Rising prices being paid for scrap metal could be the impetus for the increase in the thefts, he said.

“When the price paid for copper went up four or five years ago, that’s when it really started,” he said. “Then the price of steel went up and we began to see the theft of farm implements. If it’s copper, we see copper wires and pipes being taken out of abandoned homes or new construction.”

And while the thefts are mostly an inconvenience, Atkinson said it can become serious quickly.

“We’ve had several incidents where the copper pipes running under ground from a propane tank to heat a house has been taken,” he said. “People wake up and are cold, and their propane is just spraying out in their yard.”

In addition, the theft of batteries is on the rise.

“They are hot items right now,” the sheriff said. “We’re getting lots of thefts from unattended vehicles and equipment.”

He called the thefts “a real problem” in the county.

“In a lot of cases it’s more of an annoyance for the victim, but for people who are running businesses and they get to work and their batteries are gone or their gas lines have been cut, it can get pretty serious pretty quickly,” Atkinson said.

And often, the crimes leave investigators without a lot to go on, which is why Atkinson has begun looking at the records of recyclers who are buying scrap metal in the county.

“Usually there’s not a lot of evidence at the scene, but if the recyclers would follow the law, we will be able to find out who sold the property,” he said. “They’re supposed to take a picture of the person selling the scrap metal and the metal they’re selling, but we’ve found that the records are either not consistent or they’re very vague.”

The sheriff said that of the eight recycling businesses in the county, six of them were following the law when investigators looked at their records. Two owners have been cited in the past several weeks, he said.

Atkinson said there are things property owners can do to make it harder for thieves to steal the hot-ticket items.

“We know it’s a problem and everything from heating units from vacant homes and items from churches are being targeted, but if you can work toward making them harder to steal, they may give it a second thought,” he said.

He urged home and business owners to secure their scrap metal.

“Keep it out of sight so it’s not so easily seen from the road,” Atkinson urged. “I know it’s a horrible inconvenience for people, but it’s necessary because these thieves are out there riding around all day looking for things to steal.”

Homeowners also can mark their property so it’s easily identified in the event it is stolen.

“We can tell by the identification who it belongs to if we pick it up from a scrap yard,” he said. “If you don’t have a victim to tie it back to, you don’t have a charge to file.”

Atkinson said he is working with county information specialists to set up a system where every transaction at a recycling center is fed to the sheriff’s office.

“We want them sending us a record of every sale,” he said.

Reach Keith Strange at kstrange@civitasmedia.com or 719-1929.