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Cracking the Copper Crime Network

Metal thieves seem willing to take any type of risk just to make a quick buck. It’s an incredibly risky criminal practice – one that almost always includes the possibility of electrocution.

But as worldwide demand for copper and other metals rises, so does the price, and with it theft continues. Toss stubbornly high unemployment and illegal drug use – particularly methamphetamines – into the mix, and things only get worse.

Copper theft is no small concern: Stealing $5 to $10 worth of copper can cause thousands of dollars in damage to electric co-op equipment and trigger power outages as repairs are made.

As copper crooks become more determined, Nishnabotna Valley REC and electric cooperatives in Western Iowa and across the country have taken steps to thwart this activity, from placing surveillance cameras at hard-hit substations and offering rewards for information to working more closely with local law enforcement and scrap dealers. Other co-ops are using alternatives to traditional copper wire when building new lines or replacing old equipment. Copper-clad steel works just as effectively in conducting electricity but is worthless as scrap metal.

The Metal Theft Prevention Act was reintroduced in the U.S. Senate last February to make metal theft a federal crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison, a fine or both. It would require sellers to show proof that they own or are authorized to sell the metal, and recyclers would need to have “a reasonable basis to believe” that the documentation is valid. Dealers found in violation would face a civil penalty of up to $10,000.

That is in addition to laws already on the books in 48 states. Iowa’s version of the law, which took effect July 1, 2012, requires scrap metal dealers to obtain a name, address, place of business and proper identification before purchasing scrap metal from any individual. This requirement applies to all purchases over $50 and creates a record for law enforcement to track sales of scrap metal. The penalty for noncompliance is $100 for the first offense, $500 for second offense and $1,000 for third offense within a 2-year period.

Nishnabotna Valley REC also has teamed up with Crime Stoppers to create a special toll-free phone line (800-452-1111) so citizens can report suspicious activities at one of the cooperative’s substations – or around other equipment, such as a transformer, power pole or even a meter at a residence, farm or business. Once a tip is received, Crime Stoppers will contact the local sheriff or other designated law enforcement agency about the possible crime. After the caller has seen or heard on the local news that a crime has been solved, he or she can call Crime Stoppers to receive instructions for claiming a cash reward up to $1,000, although most rewards range from $20-200. The caller’s identity and other information will remain anonymous throughout the process.

Nishnabotna Valley REC does its best to prevent copper theft, but it needs your help too. Your cooperative’s workers always will use a marked vehicle and carry identification – plus they’ll use lights at night. If you notice a situation that doesn’t seem legitimate, call the cooperative or Crime Stoppers at 800-452-1111. Together, we can keep people safe and stop copper theft.

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