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Aug. 14, 2020

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Stealing steel: Law, price shift spur new trend

Thieves transition from copper to heavy metal

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Only a few years ago, when Clark County builders thought about metal theft, they worried mostly about crooks who made off with their expensive copper wiring — and sold it to scrap buyers in Portland.

Now, in the wake of shifting prices during the recession, and a new Oregon law regulating some scrap metal sales, times have changed, police say.

Copper theft has declined and “people are stealing more steel,” said Detective Mark Georgioff with the Portland Police Bureau.

A Vancouver-area couple he arrested in March, Georgioff said, had been driving around Vancouver and Portland in their big truck, pulling a trailer equipped with a stolen forklift.

And when no one was looking, they allegedly used the forklift to load other people’s forklifts onto the trailer, and hauled them to scrap buyers.

They allegedly stole a half-dozen forklifts from several businesses in the Vancouver and Portland areas before he arrested them, he said.

Most of the stolen forklifts weighed 4,000 pounds or more, each bringing $400 or more as scrap at the time.

“They were going around stealing steel because they wanted their drug money,” Georgioff said.

So here’s a warning for builders and others: Keep an eye on your valuable, heavy steel assets.

Besides forklifts, hopper tanks and a large crane arm have been reported stolen.

The swing to more theft of steel and iron has to do with scrap prices — and also with Oregon’s new law regulating scrap dealers, which took effect six months ago, Georgioff said.

The new law has made stealing copper, aluminum and the other nonferrous metals less attractive, because it’s harder for thieves to sell it, Georgioff said. It doesn’t apply to steel and iron.

As a result, copper theft has declined, which is good news.

Sgt. Greg Stewart with Portland’s crime-analysis unit agrees.

“The legislative changes seem to have helped to reduce the impact” of theft of copper and the other nonferrous metals, Stewart said.

Stewart said that trend applied to 2009 and the first part of this year.

During the heyday of copper theft in 2006 and 2007, scrap copper fetched as much as $4 or more per pound. Crooks frequently made off with rolls of copper wiring stored at construction sites in Clark County — and even ripped it from the walls of homes where it had been just installed.

Public agencies such as Clark Public Utilities also were targeted, and ratepayers and taxpayers footed the bills.

In the fall of 2007, Officer Jim Watson, then a detective investigating property crimes for the Vancouver Police Department, told The Columbian that most copper and other metals stolen in Clark County were being hauled to Portland and sold. Georgioff said the same.

That was because Oregon’s law then allowed buyers to pay cash for metal scrap on the day of the sale.

Washington’s law, on the other hand, was less appealing to thieves. Then and now, it requires buyers of nonferrous metals and catalytic converters worth more than $30 to withhold payment for 10 days and then mail a nontransferable check to a street address.

Both Watson and Georgioff suggested changes to Oregon’s law in 2007. They said prohibiting same-day cash paid in Portland, and requiring that a check be sent to the seller’s address later, as is done in Washington, would hamper drug users who wanted quick cash but no paper trail.

The Oregon Legislature agreed and ordered buyers to wait at least three business days and send a check.

Oregon’s law took effect Jan. 1 and it’s working in terms of reducing nonferrous metal theft, Georgioff said.

But now, he said, he’s seeing more theft of iron and steel. He’s seeing about the same amount of theft of ferrous metals and nonferrous metals, a new trend.

“We’ve never seen that,” he said.

A big reason: Washington and Oregon payment laws don’t apply to scrap steel.

“They can still get cash for steel,” Georgioff said.

Negligible return

Steel theft has victims, too. Georgioff said he’s working another case in which steel equipment worth many thousands of dollars was stolen from a business and sold as scrap for about 5 percent of its cost.

Prices vary day to day, but the price of scrap copper has fallen from the $4 range per pound to about $2 or a little more. And scrap steel’s prices have climbed into the range of $140 or more per ton, making it worth stealing for some crooks.

Georgioff said copper theft fell last year as the recession drove prices down — and there were fewer construction projects for crooks to steal from.

These days, officials with Clark Public Utilities, the Washington State Department of Transportation and the Bonneville Power Administration told The Columbian they are seeing low levels of metal theft or none. The transportation department did report one incident in which about 1,500 feet of copper wiring went missing this year from a Vancouver project.

Georgioff said most scrap metal buyers in the Vancouver-Portland metro area now work with police to avoid buying stolen metal — and some have helped catch thieves.

Laws in both Oregon and Washington require scrap buyers to keep a variety of detailed records that document purchases, and identify the sellers, and these are available to police.

It’s also important to know, as police detectives have stressed, that there are plenty of people who gather scrap metal and sell it to dealers legally. These scrappers have permission to take the metal, and make regular rounds in their trucks as their livelihood.

John Branton: 360-735-4513 or john.branton@columbian.com.

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