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Archive | Copping copper

The temperature was soaring into the 90s when the air conditioning went out at Wallace Brown Sr.'s Meadow Lake Drive home.

For a week, he struggled through the late June heat, keeping fans running and windows open.

"It was pretty rough," Brown said. The culprit? Copper thieves.Someone had ripped open Brown's central air conditioner unit and stolen the copper tubing inside, a repairman told him. Someone made off with $100 in copper -- but it wound up costing $4,275 to replace the unit.

"That's ridiculous," Brown said.

Brown, 66, filed a claim with his insurance company and a report with the Richland County Sheriff's Department. Brown is not alone. Police say thieves continue to target homes, churches, businesses and construction sites -- taking copper wherever they can find it.

It's often sold to scrap yards for cash, where authorities say sometimes too few questions are asked.

In Columbia, 67 copper thefts were reported in the past year -- an average of more than five a month.

Over the past several months, Richland County also has seen an increase in copper thefts, Sheriff Leon Lott said, likely linked to a recent run-up in the price of copper.

And during the past year and a half in Lexington County, thefts of heating and air conditioning units have been "pretty heavy," Sheriff James Metts said.

People often steal copper to buy crack, Metts said. Unlike guns or television sets, he said, copper is difficult to recover since the pieces have no serial number.

"You almost gotta catch them in the act or catch them leaving with the copper," Metts said.

Since mid-April, copper products have been stolen on three occasions from a work trailer being used by Hill Plumbing and Electric at the construction site of the Northeast Family YMCA on Lake Carolina Drive in Northeast Richland.

More than $8,000 worth of copper has been taken from the Sumter-based company, plumbing foreman Freddy Ghrigsby said, including the most recent theft June 28 of three buckets of copper fittings valued at a total of $500.

Ghrigsby now locks the trailer and escorts everyone in and out.

"We've got tools, saws, drills," he said. "They never took nothing but the copper."

Once three weeks ahead of schedule, Ghrigsby said, his crew is now two weeks behind because of the thefts. The thefts also could cut into bonuses employees receive for being under budget and on time.

And Ghrigsby can't file an insurance claim for thefts of less than $20,000. "It's pretty frustrating," he said.

Mid-Carolina Steel & Recycling Co., a scrap yard on Fairfield Road in northern Richland County, pays 80 cents to $2.80 a pound for copper, depending on quality.

Customers are required to show picture identification, and there are security cameras on site, company president Fred Seidenberg said.

On about a dozen occasions, customers have been asked by employees to be photographed with the copper they're selling, Seidenberg said. A handful have refused.

"If it's questionable, we turn stuff away," Seidenberg said. "I tell my guys we don't need it that bad. I don't want a reputation for buying stolen goods."

Seidenberg wants to launch a Web site where contractors and other copper theft victims can post information about thefts that scrap metal shops can check.

Recycling centers are "working very closely" with the Richland County Sheriff's Department to try to prevent thefts and capture those responsible, Lott said.

Some thieves have been particularly aggressive.

Luther Gladden Jr., 61, rents outs a home on Tavineer Drive in Bluff Estates off Bluff Road.

The central air conditioning unit was stolen last year.

And then on June 27, he was at the home preparing it for a new tenant and turned the water on at the meter.

As he was working outside, someone told him they thought they heard water running.

He opened the crawl space door to find water a foot and a half deep under the house.

Someone had broken off all the copper pipes, he said, leaving $1,200 in damage.

"I was furious. I invested a lot of money into that house."

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Reach Higgins at (803) 771- 8570.

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DON'T GET TAKEN

How to avoid being a victim of copper theft

FOR HOMEOWNERS

** Be vigilant.

** Report any suspicious activity to police.

** Build relationships with your neighbors.

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FOR CONTRACTORS

** Be vigilant.

** Order materials as you use them.

** Do not leave materials in unsecured areas.

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FOR ANYONE

** Always report copper thefts to police, allowing them to spot patterns and target specific areas.

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SOURCES: Columbia Police Department, Richland County Sheriff's Department

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DEATH BY COPPER

With copper prices high, thieves nationwide are dying as they try to take the valuable wire.

** High copper prices in recent years have thieves breaking into power plants and abandoned factories to rip out the wiring. Vandals are even stealing from grave sites.

** There is no national count of people killed in copper theft attempts, but news accounts put the death toll at about two dozen over the past 12 months.

** Most copper thefts are nuisances, but increasingly, thieves are turning to the highest-quality sources of copper -- power substations, utility poles and electrical boxes -- and turning over the easyto- recycle wiring to scrap dealers. The practice is so dangerous utility workers refer to it as "a dance with the devil." But it is profitable for those who don't get hurt.

** Copper prices have shot up almost fourfold in the past decade, an increase attributed to rising demand from Asia.

** Copper now trades on financial markets for about $3.60 a pound. The metal is hard to trace and retains its value well when recycled, so thieves are even targeting copper alloys such as brass.

** Pipes and air conditioners have been stripped from homes and churches. California farmers have had irrigation machinery plucked. Thieves last year stole $10,000 worth of brass toilet flush valves from parks around Honolulu.

** The copper theft spree prompted 20 states to pass laws this year to curb the problem. Much of the attention has gone to metal recyclers, who in many places could buy scrap without asking where it came from.

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The Associated Press

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BY THE NUMBERS

Reported copper thefts over the past year in Columbia

2007

JUNE - 5

MAY - 13

APRIL - 6

MARCH - 6

FEBRUARY - 5

JANUARY - 7

2006

DECEMBER - 12

NOVEMBER - 3

OCTOBER - 2

SEPTEMBER - 2

AUGUST - 3

JULY - 2

SOURCE: Columbia Police Department

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