Base Metals

To some copper market watchers, prices for the red metal — which have been giving investors vertigo in recent months — could stand to be a little better. But for the folks turning to unsavory methods of making a quick buck, current copper prices seem to be just the ticket.

To some copper market watchers, prices for the red metal — which have been giving investors vertigo in recent months — could stand to be a little better. But for the folks turning to unsavory methods of making a quick buck, current copper prices seem to be just the ticket. 

Copper theft is by no means a new phenomenon. With such a red-hot, widely used metal it is no surprise that when copper prices peaked at $3.70 per pound in 2007, compared with the 60-cent copper prices of 2002, it became commonplace for thieves to pull copper from wherever they could get it. While the red metal isn’t sporting the same high as in previous years, a (mostly) stable price of $3 per pound has ensured that copper thieving is still going strong.

Mike Adelizzi, president of the American Supply Association, a non-profit group that represents distributors and suppliers in the plumbing, heating and cooling industries, told NBC News that “[t]here’s no question the theft has gotten much, much worse,” adding that “[t]here was a perception that copper theft slowed down after the recession, and the rise in commodity prices seemed to ease off.” However, it seems that theft is only becoming more of a problem.

What’s being taken? 

Copper is considered a high-value asset due to its high market value. This hot commodity can be sold quickly for cash to scrap yards. For the most part, copper thieves tend to target electrical wiring, although they have been known to take copper anywhere they can get it.

The East Providence Patch, a local paper that serves the state of Rhode Island, recently reported that copper thieves relieved a vacant home for sale in Rhode Island of $900 worth of copper pipes. The publication notes that “vacant and abandoned houses are prime targets for copper thieves, who take pipes, gutters, wiring and even air conditioning units.”

In late July, NBC News reported that copper theft is like an epidemic sweeping through the United States, with the most recent cases of sticky fingers stripping an electrical power station in Wichita, Kansas and half a dozen homes in Morris Township in New Jersey and making away with six miles of copper wire from a highway construction site in Utah. According to NBC, these few instances of copper theft are only a small glimpse of the $1-billion copper thieving business that is spreading across the US.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), which tracks metal theft, notes that from 2009 to 2012 a total of 25,083 claims were filed. As a point of comparison, only 13,861 metal theft claims were filed between 2006 and 2008. Most of these claims were for copper theft. Ohio, Texas, Georgia, California and Illinois are the top five spot for metal theft, according to the NCIB.

What’s being done? 

Business are tired of seeing their copper stolen. Furthermore, because copper is for the most part untraceable when it is used, business have very little to go on when trying to find the perpetrators.

This dilemma has forced the city of Sacramento in California to try something different. As KCRA reports, the city is having the company making the copper wire for city use stamp and print the city’s name on the wire. Furthermore, the city is also adding locking metal hatches on the electrical hubs found on its streets. Sacramento has had to make over 20,000 street light repairs in the last three years.

Whether this innovative method of attempting to curb metal theft will work on a long-term basis, city officials are confident that it will be enough.

Other utilities are also looking to make their power stations more secure, reported Automation World. Some are looking to use Copperweld wiring — a bimetallic electrical conductor with a steel core and copper exterior — to deter thieves. Copperweld might be pricier, but its scrap value is not as high, which companies hope will dissuade thieving.

There are also organizations, such as Copper Theft, that offer businesses a cost-effective, wireless video security system that does not require AC power, internet or phone lines to function. Through the use of this feed, businesses can monitor their property and hopefully have a better chance of capturing the thieves.

With copper prices currently sitting at a favorable price, there is no telling when thefts will slow down.

 

Securities Disclosure, I Vivien Diniz, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.

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