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Copper Theft Threatens U.S. Infrastructure

Copper wire

Last April, when tornadoes were threatening Jackson, Mississippi, many residents were not alerted to the severe weather because five tornado warning sirens didn’t work. The reason: the sirens’ copper wiring had been stolen.

A month earlier in Polk County, Florida, nearly 4,000 residents were left without power after thieves stripped copper wire from a transformer at an electric company facility. Estimated losses: $500,000. Not to mention the homeowner hassles.

And late last year, vandals removed 300 feet of copper wire from a Federal Aviation Administration tower in Ohio, threatening to interrupt communications between in-flight aircraft and air traffic controllers.

Individually, these isolated crimes cause big enough headaches of their own. Taken together, however, they present a fairly significant problem for our country—a threat to public safety and to U.S. critical infrastructure.

We know…because we’ve done our homework. More and more since 9/11, we’re using intelligence to get our arms around emerging threats at the national level—not just when it comes to terrorism, but also in the criminal arena.

In this case, a recent criminal intelligence report scoped out the problem and is driving new solutions. Among the findings: 

  • “The demand for copper from developing nations such as China and India is creating a robust international copper trade,” and as the global supply of copper continues to tighten, “the market for illicit copper will likely increase.” From 2001 until 2008, the price of the metal has increased by more than 500 percent.
  • The thieves—many of whom are drug addicts or gang members—may act individually or as part of organized groups and are interested in the quick cash they get from selling copper to scrap metal dealers.
  • Their targets include electrical substations, railroads, security and emergency services, and other sensitive sites. Already, copper thefts have been responsible for shutting down railway systems and even 9-1-1 emergency systems.

Electrical substations like these are targets for copper thieves
Electrical substations like these are common targets for copper thieves.
“On the surface, it could be a relatively small theft,” explained an agent who specializes in major theft crimes and who commissioned the report after getting wind of the problem, “but the public safety impact could be significant.” And while copper thieves may not intend to compromise critical infrastructure, they can still be charged with more weighty federal crimes, the agent said.

The fact that most copper thefts involve a relatively small amount of money, often take place in rural areas, and are investigated by local law enforcement agencies helps explain why, until recently, the implications of these crimes fell below the radar of federal law enforcement. 

The FBI intelligence analyst who wrote the report spoke with nearly 150 people from local and state law enforcement and with officials from railroad and energy companies. “Everywhere I went,” she said, “someone had something to say about the problem of copper theft. But nobody had the big picture.”

Now we do and are developing solutions. Several informal task forces between local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies have been established to combat copper theft, most notably in Nevada. In one such case, they are charging a copper thief with a more serious federal statute that can carry up to a 20-year sentence. 

There is still a lot of work to be done, our agent acknowledged, but now, the serious issues surrounding copper theft are known and being addressed.

Read the unclassified intelligence report

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