Rising Metal Prices Lead to Thefts

Vacant homes and those being refurbished in Columbus are being broken into by people looking for recyclable metals, like copper piping. It’s a crime that’s become a lot more popular since the price of copper has risen quite dramatically in the past two years.

Before metal can be recycled, workers at Messer Metals and Recycling crush it down into small bundles. Aluminum and steel are two of the most common recycled metals. And despite rising prices, copper is making a come back. In the past two years the price for a pound of copper has increased 34 percent. And that’s good news for people who want to get rid of it. But others are turning to illegal ways to get their hands on it. “It’s the hot new thing.” Says Tim O’Donnell,a burglary detective with the Columbus Division of Police.

O’Donnell says people are breaking into homes that are abandoned or being remodeled and ripping the copper piping right out of the walls. “I would say just about everyday, maybe three days a week, I get a report or a couple of reports, with stolen construction materials or stolen copper out of these vacant houses. So, it’s frequent.” Says O’Donnell.

On April first 2004, Glenda Smith closed on a home in Old Town East. It had brand new appliances; the kitchen had been recently remodeled. It was move-in ready. And that was just what Smith was looking for. “I really didn’t intend to move in. I wanted it as an investment property because I have a condo and I didn’t really know if I would be able to sell, so it was just up in the air. I knew that it was a good investment because of the price of the properties in this area. And I was looking forward to retirement in about another year, year-and-a-half.” Smith said there were a few changes she wanted to make, new paint, expand the kitchen, make one of the bathrooms larger. So she hired an acquaintance to do the job. That’s when things turned sour.

Smith discovered that her copper pipes had been stolen, not only from the basement, but throughout her home. The dry wall had even been knocked out so the pipes in the kitchen could be reached. “The insulation off the copper lines and the pipelines from downstairs, it was just laying all over the basement.” Simth says. But the thief did not stop at the copper pipes. He came back for more. “The carpeting was taken up off the floor, the baseboards were taken, all the trim around the windows were taken, and they weren’t meticulously taken off, they were just ripped off because it left gaping holes in the walls, and the windows actually fell out, some of the windows actually fell out. And pigeons were just flying through, they actually roosted in the house and made a home in the house because it was just open. He took all the light fixtures out, he took the cabinets, the countertops.” Says Smith.

And when Smith’s son brought his dog to the house to guard it, the dog was stolen, too.

While it’s not known what happened to the dog, it’s likely the copper ended up at a scrap metal shop.

Mark Masser is the president of Masser Metals and Recycling. Masser says in the past year or so his copper transactions have gone up along with the price. And he contributes that to the global economy. Mark Masser-a lot less than before. “Because of the demand, and the global demand, that’s what’s really triggered the scrap business. The demand from China, India, South America. As a matter of supply and demand the prices have gone up.” Says Masser.

While his company deals mostly business to business, Masser says it does get its share of individuals. While he says he knows most of them, there’s a standard protocol for every customer. “You like to ask questions about the material when you buy it. You take the person’s name, address, you can ask for their driver’s license. So you can gather enough information, that God forbid, the police would come and there would be someone missing something that you could try to verify names.” Says Masser.

O’Donnell says scrap yard owners should know the characteristics of stolen copper pipes. “If the same individuals or the group of individuals comes in three days a week with copper piping that looks like the ends have been ripped out of the, of a basement, or the ends have been cut away from another part of copper, they need to use some common sense and be decent about it and refuse these people. That’s really not happening.” Says O’Donnell. He adds property owners should remove all tools from the structure and screw plywood to doors and windows when no one is there. While he says those ideas are not foolproof, they are deterrents.

For Smith, she’s unsure if she’ll be able to turn a profit from what started out as a way to supplement her retirement income. She’s not even sure at this point how much she’s actually lost. “I don’t know, I have no idea. I really, I’m afraid to add everything up. Because every time I have to deal with this it just makes me sick. It really does.” Says Smith.

After two years, Glenda Smith is slowly replaced everything that was stolen from her house, but it’s still not ready to be put back on the market to sell. While never criminally charged, the man who stole Smith’s property has never paid her back. They remain locked in a legal battle.