The Rise of Scrap Metal Theft

by Criminal Defence Blawg on June 27, 2012

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Scrap metal theft is not a new issue. For decades occasional stories concerning, for example, the theft of lead from church roofs or the removal of copper pipes from uninhabited dwellings have appeared in local newspapers. But in the last ten years, as the global economy has faltered, scrap metal theft has risen to epidemic proportions throughout the industrialised world.

What has caused the current rise of scrap metal theft?

As the new Milennium began, a combination of circumstances conspired to escalate demand for, and the value of, scrap metal. The increasing industrialisation of Asia, and in particular China – which required the supply of vast amounts of construction materials in order to ready the country for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games – resulted in significant rises in the cost of non-precious metals including zinc, brass, copper, aluminium, nickel and bronze. At the same time, both Europe and America’s ongoing construction programmes, and the further demand for metals resulting from military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan pushed the value of scrap metal even higher, reaching around £1,000 per ton at its peak in 2008.

Just as scrap metal became more valuable than ever, the collapse of the global housing market and ensuing economic decline began to take effect. Despite the financial downturn, the prices paid for aluminium, copper, nickel and zinc have remained buoyant, fuelling rise in scrap metal theft by those eager to make relatively easy money from those scrap metal merchants who are prepared to buy without questioning the origins or legality of the metal offered for sale.

For the opportunist metal thief, any metal is ‘scrap’ metal

The increase in value of those metals most commonly used in construction or industry has led not only to a rise in scrap metal theft, but to the wholesale theft of any kind of metal that may be sold for profit, regardless of its current use, ownership or the consequences of its removal. A succession of stories has appeared in the media in recent years detailing the theft of everything from bronze statues and memorial plaques to copper telephone cabling, iron manhole covers, church bells and aluminium beer kegs. The theft of metal from the railway infrastructure is of particular concern; numerous instances of the theft of copper cabling and even sections of track have been reported, and highlight not only the financial impact of repairs and the resultant delays to train services but also the extreme risk to human life that such actions may elicit.

Tackling the rise of scrap metal theft

According to the Association of British Insurers, victims of metal theft are receiving insurance payments of more than £1million pounds every week. Since 2007, it’s estimated that metal thefts have doubled, with around a thousand crimes reported each week in the UK. At a time when financial prudence is at the forefront of every political manifesto, the annual cost to the British economy resulting from the rise in scrap metal theft is around £770million.

A multi-pronged approach is being taken to combat scrap metal theft. Commonly stolen items such as drain and manhole covers are being forensically tagged with a substance that becomes visible when exposed to ultraviolet light. Dealers found in possession of forensically tagged metal items face prosecution. A system implemented by BT can detect malicious interference with communications cables, raising the alarm and pinpointing the scene of the incident within minutes. Local police authorities are setting up units specifically dedicated to the prevention of scrap metal theft. In some cases where bronze memorial items or artworks have been stolen, these are being replaced by replicas which are identical in appearance but cast from materials valueless to thieves.

Reputable scrap metal dealers, who now face tougher industry legislation being proposed by the Government, are also playing their part by introducing their own voluntary code of conduct and in some cases implementing a register of customers to create a transaction audit trail.

The Government’s proposals include the creation of a register of scrap merchants which would require identity checks and the elimination of scrap metal sales for cash, again with the intention of improving the traceability of scrap metal sales transactions.

Whilst some members of the UK scrap metal industry are opposed to the proposal of Government regulation, the majority seem to welcome it and if the voluntary efforts currently being taken by those with an interest in protecting their metal assets are anything to go by, the trade in stolen metal should hopefully soon be in decline.

About the Author

John is a freelance writer based in the UK who contributes to a number of legal, travel and finance blogs. He is currently working with Skip and Bin – a skip hire comparison service in the UK.

Criminal Defence Blawg

Criminal Defence Blawg

Criminal law blogger at CriminalDefenceBlawg
Criminal Defence Blawg is a criminal law blog, sharing legal expertise and intelligence from the UK, US, Australia and beyond. Contributions from those who share great legal information. Want to get published? Contact us today.
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