Crimping Crime

Metal thieves threaten your electric service … and lives

Posted on Apr 25 2011 in Features

insideartIn the wee-hour darkness one February morning, a 31-year-old man made his way to the roof of an industrial complex in downtown Indianapolis. He headed to a bank of electrical transformers. Police said he was looking to steal copper wire he could then cash in at a scrap yard.

His partner down on the street in the getaway car saw what happened next: a burst of blue light flashed above. In that instant, the man was dead — electrocuted by 24,000 volts. In essence, he sentenced himself to death for a crime that probably would have netted less than a hundred bucks worth of metal.

The man had lost his job. He had little and was trying to make ends meet. Now, he lost his life. But if his death wasn’t enough to make the crime senseless and tragic, there is more. “He found out he had a baby on the way,” the man’s aunt told a TV news reporter at the Indianapolis NBC affiliate. “He had his whole life, and now we don’t have him. And his new baby don’t even know his dad — and will never,” she said.

The tragedy could have been even worse: Had his pilfering been successful, innocent lives might have been taken. Maintenance workers at the complex or a utility worker could have been electrocuted by the damage he would have left behind. An electrical fire might have been sparked, creating the potential for even greater loss of life and damage.

The rise in copper theft

All across the country, soaring metal prices have been blamed for an increase in thefts of copper and aluminum, primary components of electric distribution lines. The phenomenon has been growing for a half dozen years.

A 542 percent increase in the price of copper since 2001 coupled by the depressed economy and job loss has prompted thieves to become bolder and more inventive. Recent thefts of copper wire and equipment from electric utilities have been responsible for power outages, additional maintenance and expenses, diminished service reliability, and, in some cases, as seen in Indianapolis, serious injury or death.

While thefts from electric substations, poles and other electric utility facilities pose the most immediate danger to the public, thefts of copper, aluminum, platinum, bronze and other precious metals are on the rise from railroads, abandoned commercial buildings, churches, schools, empty homes, homes under construction, parking garages and people’s own yards and driveways.

Besides wiring, the hit list includes: catalytic converters from cars; plumbing; air conditioners and parts; aluminum siding and gutters; ornamental copper from homes; bronze plaques and statues. No metal is sacred. Even bronze memorials and flower vases have been stolen from cemeteries.

Some thieves might only be looking for “easy” though illegal ways to support their family. But many law enforcement and electric co-op officials see a much darker side. They believe drug addicts are responsible for much of the problem.

“You don’t have to dig deep to see how this phenomenon is tied to methamphetamine use,” said Bill Verner, vice president of external affairs at the electric cooperative association in Georgia, a state where theft has been high. “Why would anyone with a rational mind break into an energized substation where they’re most likely going to seriously injure themselves just to pull off $50 worth of copper?”

The cost of copper theft

The damage done to electric systems packs a big punch. Equipment can be ruined without the protection copper wires provide. And, there’s the potential for loss of life. Besides the one in Indianapolis, other metal-theft deaths have occurred in Kentucky, Illinois, Ohio, North Carolina, West Virginia, Texas and New Mexico in recent years.

Electric utilities use copper to ground equipment. Grounding protects power lines and equipment from electrical surges and lightning by giving electricity a safe path to the ground. Even more copper wire is used in substations where electricity is stepped down from the high voltage arriving from distant power plants before it travels to your neighborhood. Then another transformer near your home — either mounted on a utility pole or in a green box on the ground — lowers the voltage again so you can use the power at home. Copper is an essential component every step of the way.

Lineworkers are highly-trained professionals who understand the dangers of electricity and take proper safety precautions. To protect the public, utilities surround substations with secure fencing and post warning signs. But some thieves will not be deterred.

In Oklahoma, for instance, metal thieves took off with about $100 worth of wire from an electric co-op substation last year. They left behind a $1 million repair bill after a fire destroyed regulators, switches and a $600,000 transformer. More than 3,500 consumers were temporarily left in the dark after the incident.

Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative has reported thousands of feet of neutral wires stolen from 56 utility poles and electric substation equipment, causing material losses totaling about $25,000. “Individuals who steal copper wire from the electric utility are not just stealing from [the co-op],” said Austin J. Slater Jr., president and CEO of the SMEC. “They are stealing from every consumer.”

The same is true for every co-op across the country. The costs of replacement, repairs and increased security are reflected in the electric bills of every member.

While not as rampant here, perhaps, as in other areas of the country, Indiana’s electric co-ops are seeing damage and loss to their systems, too, especially in the most remote rural areas. Thieves have cut wires at substations. Others have cut copper grounding wires running down the side of electric poles, then tied the end to their bumpers and driven off — yanking as much line from the pole as they could get.

Though the copper is a neutral wire, it still can conduct electricity. Once it is removed, the current seeks the next best path to ground — which could be guy wires or a pole, jeopardizing safety, said Gayvin Strantz, manager of training, safety and loss control at Indiana Statewide Association of RECs. “Without that, we don’t have the system grounded,” he said.

Strantz said the first to feel the consequences of cutting the ground wire and opening the circuit could be the thieves. “That path to ground can go right through the bolt cutter or pliers they’re using, then through their arms and pass right through their body and down their legs to where their feet touch the ground. That’s the completion of the circuit.”

The thefts have increased the possibility of power outages, surges or fires, and raised the danger of electrical injury. The thieves are creating a weakness in the system that could cause problems down the line.
Other thieves have broken into co-op garages. At Jasper County REMC three years ago, thieves cut a hole in the co-op’s security fence and stole scrap wire, hauling it away through the hole — in a co-op pickup truck they also stole.

“Someone from Hammond called us and asked if we were missing a truck. It was parked in front of her mom’s house,” said Stephanie Johnson, member services manager at the co-op. The truck was recovered, but the scrap metal was gone — probably sold to a scrap dealer in the Chicago area.

One bold thief lifted a roll of copper wire right off the back of a RushShelby Energy line truck parked at a restaurant in broad daylight while the crew was having lunch.

“Other patrons saw it, notified our crew and the police, and the thief was apprehended in the parking lot with the copper in his car,” said David Sheets, senior vice president of the REMC.

When final expenses are factored in, copper theft usually ends up costing a co-op about 10 times the value of the pilfered metal. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that losses from copper theft alone cost the U.S. economy about $1 billion a year.

The battle to deter theft

To combat the metal theft problem, at least 28 states, including Indiana, and scores of municipalities around the country have passed laws tightening the restrictions on scrap dealers in recent years.

In Indiana, scrap metal recyclers are required to keep additional records or logs of customers selling copper, aluminum, brass or other valuable metals used in residential or commercial construction. Police can inspect the records at any time.

Some scrap metal buyers are now required to hold a purchase in reserve for a week or more before reselling it in case it has been stolen. Some dealers won’t accept any metal that appears new or unused, while some even photograph purchases before processing the scrap.

People are taking precautions, too, putting A/C units under lock and key. Churches, with their ornate decorations, are often prime targets and are taking more care.

Electric cooperatives are changing working habits and construction routines and beefing up security. Some stamp copper and aluminum wire with an ID number to deter theft.

One company, DataDot (, offers high-tech numerical IDs hardly bigger than a grain of sand that can be attached with glue or sprayed onto all kinds of equipment. This includes commercial and industrial equipment co-ops use, or personal items like bicycles, car parts, A/C coils, you name it. To the naked eye, the dots are almost undetectable. But under a black light, each microscopic dot appears and, through a small hand-held magnifier, reveals an individual laser-etched tracking number.

Co-ops around the country are testing this new nanotechnology and are heavily promoting its use through signage at their facilities, press events and member education. Since the dots are almost impossible to detect and even harder to remove from all the places they get sprayed, and because area scrap dealers and police agencies are alerted to look for the dots, the co-ops have reported theft attempts have declined.

Hoosier Energy REC, power supplier to co-ops in the southern half of Indiana, has installed video camera systems, loud alarms and bright strobe lights at some 35 substations and other facilities. “We’re making every effort to keep these substations and the folks around them safe,” said Brady Mann, Hoosier’s manager of delivery service.

Hoosier Energy’s power delivery coordinator, Alan Woodford, said the key to deterring theft and vandalism starts with community awareness. “Security measures have been taken at substations with special attention to those that repeatedly get hit,” he said. “Vandalism can be an obstacle to reliability so community awareness and safety are a priority.”

Hoosier Energy also offers a standard $2,500 reward for information leading to the arrest of anyone stealing from or vandalizing power delivery facilities.

“Metal theft costs us about $100,000 a year,” Woodford added. “In addition, if we’re doing new construction, we station guards. We keep someone at the site 24-7.”

Back on that Indianapolis rooftop, that 31-year-old man made a criminal decision that cost him his life. While his grieving aunt explained why he did it, she noted that’s no excuse. Her words should haunt anyone who thinks stealing anything, especially electrical equipment, is the solution to financial hardship in these tough times.

“Stop and think before you do it,” she said. “There’s other resources. Somewhere, somehow, find it. Don’t lose your life over it.”

Sources used with permission: WTHR-TV Channel 13 (here’s a link to its story:, Hoosier Energy REC, NRECA; Electric Consumer staff also contributed to and edited this article