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Metal thieves find way to skirt 2008 regulations
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In the several years prior to 2008, this state had an enormous problem with thefts of non-ferrous metals like copper, brass, aluminum and stainless steel. The problem has not been eliminated, but it had abated, somewhat, until recently. Scrap metal prices for these materials soared during mid-2000 owing to all of the industrial growth, global manufacturing and the construction that took place during that time. Things did not really slow down until approximately two years ago. The collecting/stealing and selling of these metals as "scrap" became a lucrative pastime for thieves because metal recyclers were paying a high "going rate" for them. Valuable metals are like any market commodity with their relative values rising and falling based on demand.

The global recession that has gripped most all nations' economies led to reduced demand for non-ferrous metals. California also passed a law that made it more difficult for thieves to sell valuable metals to the recyclers. The "metal theft law," which is generally covered under California Business and Professions Code Sections 21600-21609.5, took effect on Jan. 1, 2008. Among its many provisions, it requires recyclers and sellers to record the date and location of each sale; the seller must have a valid form of identification, any vehicle used to transport the items must have its license plate recorded, the item(s) sold must be described; the seller's thumbprint must be obtained; a three-day waiting period is required before the seller can be paid, and a few more requirements are attached to these kinds of transactions.

The metal theft law is certainly helpful, but we are now seeing an increase in the thefts of non-ferrous metals again. Brass water valves are being stolen from buildings, thieves are stripping copper wire out of any equipment, machinery or systems that make use of such material, and virtually anything else that has a recycling value is being stolen on a daily basis. Clearly, the thieves and certain unscrupulous buyers have found a way around the metal theft law. And what is so problematic is the fact that water valves, for example, which may cost several hundred dollars to purchase, will yield a thieve only a fraction of the original value. The same goes for the stripping of wire from sprinkler systems and the like. The junk value of some copper wire may be just a few dollars, but the damage and cost of repairs to the system from which the wire was removed may be in the thousands.

There has apparently been a slight increase in demand for certain products made of non-ferrous metals, such that the prices for those metals have increased again. Metal thieves are aware of this, so they are now stealing more brass valves, copper wire and other similar products. And in spite of stringent transaction rules under the relatively new metal theft law, there is a thriving market for the sales of valuable metals. This, of course, has implications for anyone who has property, equipment, sprinkler systems, etc., which makes use of items made of valuable metals.

There are steps that can be taken to protect these kinds of items from theft and that aid in their recovery if stolen. We recommend that all devices made of non-ferrous metals be serialized, photographs taken, etc. It helps to stamp in words to the effect of "Property of XYZ Company." Constructing locked cages or boxes to conceal and secure valuable valves located on the outside of buildings is a good measure to take as well. Some people use a high quality distinctly-colored paint to distinguish their valves and other items made of non- ferrous metals. The paint helps police identify stolen items more easily. Underground wiring systems should have their access points locked and even alarmed if necessary. Security cameras are also useful, as long as they function in conjunction with an alarm system to generate a response from a security company or the police.

Law enforcement agencies already keep an eye on recyclers for compliance with the metal theft law, but we believe that most in this area are reputable business operations that refuse to purchase suspicious or obviously stolen metals. It is quite likely that the sale of stolen metals has gone to individuals who transport the product to locations where the metal theft law is not as rigorously enforced - perhaps out of this state.

In any event, we believe that now is the time to be vigilant and prepared for a new round of increased occurrences of metal thefts.