The theft of copper from building wiring, plumbing and air conditioners has reached epidemic proportions, propelled by record high copper prices, according to area police.
What once was primarily an urban problem involving abandoned buildings has now spread to the suburbs, and police say the damage caused by the “scrappers,” as the scrap metal thieves are called, often costs a great deal more than the copper they steal to sell to scrap metal dealers.
Police said copper prices spiked early this year at more than $4 a pound, which triggered a wave of thefts. The price has gone down to about $3.60 a pound, but the rash of thefts has continued.
“What we’re seeing is someone goes into an abandoned house and uses a battery operated Sawzall,” said Stratford Police Detective Capt. John Popik, referring to the brand name of an electric, reciprocating saw used to cut wood, pipes and other materials.
Popik said the thieves’ favorite targets are houses that are vacant because of foreclosures, but some are bold enough to climb on the roofs of commercial buildings and pry copper parts out of air conditioners.
The thefts can create dangerous conditions, too. Earlier this month, the New Haven Fire Department evacuated several houses in the Fair Haven section after a building inspector found dangerous levels of natural gas in the basement posing the risk of an explosion. Thieves had reportedly ripped out the gas pipes before the gas service was shut off.
Almost every town’s police department has investigated a copper theft, and many have made arrests.
North Haven police arrested two men earlier this year after receiving a report that a suspicious truck was seen in a United Illuminating facility on Middletown Avenue. Lt. Stan Lofquist said the thieves had removed a spool of braided copper cable and were preparing to leave with it.
“Our thefts of scrap materials like copper increase as the price goes up,” Lofquist said.
Milford police arrested three men this fall who stole copper wire from an unused building at a Connecticut Limousine facility on Old Gate Lane.
Stratford police are investigating several incidents, including the theft of copper parts from a rooftop air conditioner on a commercial building.
The rash of copper thefts was so feverish this year that police in West Haven told the New Haven Register that a scrapper who broke into a vacant building confronted another scrapper already there ripping the pipes out.
Police charged the scrapper with 57 counts connected to 15 copper theft incidents. The other scrapper who was already in the building was arrested for multiple thefts, too.
Popik said Stratford detectives pursue criminal mischief charges along with larceny in order to punish the thieves for the damage they cause as well as the theft.
“They’re causing thousands of dollars to the house,” he said.
He urged members of the public to report it to the police if they see a truck stopped at a vacant house or a business at off-hours when it is unusual for workmen to be in the building.
Regulating Scrap Dealers
Popik said in Connecticut, scrap dealers must keep a record of the driver’s licenses and license plates of anyone who shows up with scrap copper to sell so that police have a way to track them down. It is still difficult to enforce, because copper scrap isn’t easy to identify, he said.
Kevin Lawlor, Communications Director for the Institute of Scrap Metal Recycling Industries, a lobbying group, said scrap dealers aren’t happy with the copper thefts, because state governments have responded by passing regulations that cost them money.
“In the long run, it doesn’t pay for them to take stolen goods,” Lawlor said.