Copper Thefts Reflect Desperate Financial Times

By Mark Anderson

A disturbing symptom of America’s economic downtown is that copper from air conditioners, wiring, gravemarkers—anything thieves can get their hands on—is fair game in the ever-expanding scrapping racket, carried out by a cashstrapped element of the populace that cannibalizes nearly everything in its path.

This scene is being played out across the country. In the case of Georgia, Tom Gillis, an Avondale, Ga. police officer, told this writer that he had to help form a three municipality task force to fight the metal-stealing frenzy that is growing not only geographically, but also in the variety of objects stolen and the sheer audacity involved in taking them.

“This week a graveyard got hit for dozens of bronze markers,” Gillis told AFP. “We’ve even had manhole covers stolen. I also had a stack of [stolen] state-direction signs with ‘Georgia Department of Transportation’ stamped on the back of them.”


Police in Georgia and across the country are partnering with scrap yards so the type and quantity of metal traded in for cash can be monitored, much in the way that pawnshops are watched when there are spikes in stolen merchandise.

In DeKalb County east of Atlanta, within the area of Gillis’s task force, police broke up a ring that stole dozens of air conditioning units worth $200,000. Chicago thieves stole two air conditioners from an animal shelter, costing the facility $25,000.

Even indirect fatalities have resulted. Vandals who stripped copper from Miami streetlights contributed to the death of Thelma Morrow. A Toyota Corolla struck her on a rainy September night.

“The driver told police the streetlight outages helped make the crash difficult to avoid, and firefighters needed emergency floodlights to tend to Mrs.Morrow. She died weeks later at age 52,” the South Florida Sun-Sentinel sadly noted.

Gillis is warning homeowners everywhere to lock their crawl-space entrances or scrappers might literally yank the plumbing right out from under their homes. The nation’s countless foreclosures and abandoned homes are similarly a major target. But the scrappers hardly stop there. According to the East Peoria Times-Courier, Rep. Mike Unes (R-Ill.) has filed H.B. 3825 to make the resale of stolen metals harder.

“This summer alone, dozens of households in our region have been the targets of copper and aluminum theft,  especially copper coils found in commercial air conditioners. Thieves are also targeting local churches, farms, and businesses causing tens of thousands of dollars of damages,” Unes told the Times-Courier.

Illinois farmer Ernie Runyon’s irrigation systems have been hit hard. Last summer, more than a dozen of his 31 irrigators were robbed of their copper wire. One irrigator was hit three separate times. The loss is $4,000 to $10,000 per irrigator. His insurance provider canceled his policy covering these systems because of the number of claims.

Unes’s legislation provides an example that could help stem the tide. His bill orders metal dealers to no longer pay cash for air conditioners, condensers or evaporator coils. This includes any type of copper. Moreover, payments cannot be made at transaction time. Instead, they can only be finalized after three business days have passed—and only by check or money order. Scrap yards must keep better records and cannot purchase anything marked as belonging to the government or a business.

Amid these acts of desperation, iron and steel air conditioner cages are selling nearly as fast as air conditioners are being stolen—a hot item to deny thieves some cool cash.