Copper Looks Like Gold to Thieves

When hundreds of people lost their telephone service last week in Parkview, Mo., it wasn't because of bad weather hitting the Kansas City suburb, but another kind of storm that has quietly spread across the country.

The outage was caused by thieves who cut a phone line to steal $10 worth of copper. This just the latest incident in what seems to be the new hot item for burglars: copper.

The price of copper is nearing $4 a pound and has more than quadrupled in the past five years.

"The price is the highest in history, so everybody out there is trying to get a quick buck," says Steven Petriello, a scrap metal dealer.

As a result, warehouses, construction sites, churches, lamp posts and cemeteries are being targeted, sometimes repeatedly as thieves literally rip off the copper.


In another recent Missouri heist, federal authorities charged two men with stealing copper that was supposed to be used in the war effort.

"It was over 8 tons of material that could have produced about 1.5 million rounds of ammunition," assistant U.S. Attorney James Crowles said.

One of the men allegedly took copper from the ammunition plant they worked at and sold it to a salvage company, he said. According to law enforcement officials, the men split about $45,000 in profits from the sales.

In some cases the thieves are brazen enough to steal copper from working power lines and stations. They are actually cutting through live electrical wires, as police in Fort Worth, Texas, found.

"They have flash burns on their hands, face, and chest where they've actually went in and cut a live wire," police there said.

In Detroit this winter, copper thefts led to power outages that affected thousands, according to the local power company.

Michael Lynch, the head of security for Detroit Edison, is one of the officials who is concerned about this recent crime wave.

"Detroit Edison had 400 incidents last year alone where individuals cut energized conductors," Lynch said. "And when they're cutting wire they're not only risking their own life but they are putting somebody out of service."

The government is even trying to capitalize on the high prices of scrap metals. This week it is auctioning off two thousand retired military aircraft that have been sitting for years at the so called "bone yard" in Tucson. The metal of these aircrafts is expected to bring in $10 million.

Some of those stealing metal are in organized crime, while sometimes they are just drug addicts looking to make a quick dollar. Much of what's stolen ends up at scrap yards.

A new trend seems to be emerging -- one that may prove to be too difficult to stop.

Pierre Thomas and Chris Knacke contributed to this story.