These bold thieves leave us in the dark

Published March 16, 2007

My wife and I had spent the early morning one day last week at our two-story apartment building using a power saw. Lights were on in several rooms. Everything seemed in order when we left.

But an hour later, when she returned from running an errand, she noticed that the refrigerator light was out. Later, she tried to turn on the radio and start a drill. Both dead.

On her way to ask the next door neighbor if they had power, my wife checked the breaker box. She's pretty familiar with that stuff. The main power switches were shut off and all the wires leading to four boxes were cut and lying on the ground. So were the thick wires leading from the air conditioning units.

She called the police. Then she called me at work. I thought maybe an angry ex-boyfriend of one of the tenants had cut the wires to get back at her.

But it was nothing that malicious. We were the victims of one of the hottest property crimes around. Someone had stolen the electric wire for the copper inside.

Police call this a crime of opportunity, perfect for people looking for quick cash for drugs or whatever. Developers, the telephone and electric utilities, building contractors and homeowners have been hit hard.

You've seen some of the bold thefts in the paper. Like last year when men posed as Verizon employees digging up cable along U.S. 19.

The cost adds up. It took a few days for a licensed electrician to restore power to the building. Utility companies have lost thousands to copper theft. In desperation, Verizon has even offered a reward to catch copper thieves.

Criminals will steal anything, even if it is nailed down. During the hurricane binge of 2004, plywood was the hot commodity. But for years, copper has been tops on the thievery list. Why is the metal so precious? You can blame capitalists in booming China and India. The stolen copper is sold at recycling centers or salvage yards and is usually shipped overseas soon afterward.

In recent years, copper has sold for as much as $3 a pound. But today Patriot Metal in Brooksville and the Land O'Lakes Recycling Center pay about $2.35, give or take a penny.

The price may have dropped, but copper theft is still a lucrative enterprise. And copper thieves are hard to stop unless caught in the act - which can be deadly. A 45-year-old Crystal Springs man was electrocuted in December while apparently trying to steal electrical wiring from an abandoned mobile home.

For investigators and recycling center employees, it's difficult - if not impossible - to distinguish between stolen copper and that which has been legally salvaged.

"There's no way to distinguish one person's copper from the next," said Pasco sheriff's Detective Michelle March, who investigated the Verizon cable case. "That's why so many people get away with it."

Plumbing companies in Hernando have been marking their metal with paint and notifying the folks at Patriot Metal to be on the lookout. But that's unlikely to deter the copper theft pros. As long as the price is right, copper will retain its shine.

By the way, it cost us about $2,000 to replace the wiring.

Not to mention some big locks.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at (813) 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is askerritt@sptimes.com