Brazen copper thieves knock out phone service

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EUGENE, Ore. — Some homes and businesses in Dexter, Ore., lost phone service after thieves disguised a road crew stole several hundred feet of telephone cable containing copper wire from a line near Highway 58.

"They were trying to make it look like, 'nothing suspicious going on here,"' a Chevron gas station and mini-market employee told The Register-Guard newspaper. The gas station employee, who declined to be identified, said the two suspects bought items at the store Sunday morning, and sheriff's deputies are aware that surveillance cameras captured images of the men.

Lane County sheriff's Sgt. Steve French said the men traveled in a red Ford diesel truck.

Phone provider CenturyLink said legitimate technicians drive vehicles and wear clothing that display official logos. Crews handling roadside repair jobs carry safety equipment, including vests, orange cones and traffic signs.

"If you see individuals working on telephone wires without this equipment, especially at odd hours, call 911 immediately," said Jason Johannesen, CenturyLink's area operations manager in Eugene.

CenturyLink said service was restored to most customers by Sunday evening.

Copper thieves have been responsible for a number of telephone outages in Lane County this summer. Relatively high copper prices — about $3 per pound — appear to have fueled the surge.

Cases of copper wire theft in Oregon peaked about five years ago when scrap prices rose to nearly $4 per pound.

In response to that trend, Oregon enacted new laws that prohibit scrap metal recyclers from paying for scrap on the spot and require them to keep records of people who bring in metal for sale.

Police say criminals, often drug users looking for quick money, sometimes skirt those rules by dealing with a middleman who is not associated with a local scrap yard.