When Jo-Anne Phillips started renovating a Moncton home, thieves broke in overnight and ripped out copper wires and pipes wherever they could find them. Two days later, they came back to steal whatever metal was left behind.
“They couldn’t get through the doors, so they broke the glass. They used a screwdriver to back out the three-inch screws we had secured the door with,” she said.
Phillips, who renovates rentals in the city, scrambled to install a security system and convinced her insurance company to cover the more than $50,000 bill for the repairs.
Thefts of copper wire are on the rise in New Brunswick and across North America right now. Thieves are cutting and stripping the metal wherever they can find it: in private homes, businesses, electrical substations, construction sites and even directly from utility poles and street lights.
Codiac RCMP Staff Sgt. Thierry Malenfant said copper-wire theft reports come in almost weekly.
“It’s not an easy task for people or the city to secure everything. It’s very problematic for sure,” Malenfant said.
The incidents are knocking out internet service for hundreds of customers in the Fredericton area on a regular basis, resulting in tens of thousands of dollars in damages.
Bell reported 50 thefts from its lines between October and December and started hiring private security. Bell spokesperson Caroline Audet said the utility has reported at least a dozen more incidents in the area since the start of 2023.
Copper wire theft is soaring — and stopping it is far from easy
N.B. Power is also getting hit, with theft of copper wire and vandalism becoming so common the utility is accounting for the incidents as a regular expense.
Spokesperson Marc Belliveau said fencing in high-risk areas and monitored security cameras helped drop copper theft incidents to 27 in 2022, down from 92 the previous year, but he said theft remains a concern.
“In some cases, we were able to deter potential thieves before breaking into sites and obtain evidence that led to multiple arrests,” Belliveau said in an email.
Why is this happening?
Copper prices have climbed back over the past year to upward of $5 per pound, depending on the grade, after spending about eight years at fairly low levels. The metal is also widely available in everything from streetlights to homes. Experts believe the rise in price has encouraged theft.
Ben Stickle set out to find the people behind metal theft, what motivates them and how they operate. He published the results of his research in the book Metal Scrappers and Thieves: Scavenging for Survival and Profit.
“We find that these thieves are generally people who’ve worked in some type of industry where they understand metal,” he said. “Maybe they’ve been installing metals, or a roofer, or they do heating or air conditioning, something where they understand the value of metal, how to work with it, and how to get money out of it.”
Stickle, a criminal justice professor at Middle Tennessee State University, said most thieves often work in groups. and they consider the risk of getting caught against potential profit.
Stopping the problem
At her Moncton property, Phillips hired 24-hour private security until she could get a security system and cameras installed, but she said she worries for other properties in the city.
“I want to be part of the solution. I want us to keep trying to figure something else out to slow down this crazy epidemic of theft,” she said.
Utilities are improving security and replacing stolen cables with smaller ones that have less copper and aren’t as valuable. Construction companies are also finding alternative metals to replace copper in wiring.
Under New Brunswick regulations, scrap yards are currently required to record the name, address and vehicle registration of the seller and basic information about the goods sold.
Following a rash of catalytic converter thefts, the province is now looking to crack down on stolen goods headed to recycling centres. In October, the Department of Justice and Public Safety introduced amendments to the Salvage Dealers Licensing Act. Among the changes, scrap yards will no longer be able to pay cash and will be required to check government ID.
A government spokesperson said the new regulations are expected to take effect in the coming weeks.
Thieves will adapt, says expert
Malenfant said RCMP have had some success in stopping thieves, but after a crime is committed police often have limited options in making arrests. He is welcoming the legislation change and said any additional information about sellers will help.
“As you can imagine, there’s no marking, there’s no serial number, so it’s obviously very challenging for us to track these types of theft,” he said.
Stickle said the province’s approach is nothing new — and easy for thieves to work around.
“Many of the states have done this for years, some of them even for decades, and it doesn’t seem to have had a lot of impact on the rate of theft,” he said.
Metal is difficult to identify, and thieves with a background in construction can mix in stolen material with legitimately gathered goods to make it practically impossible to trace.
In areas with regulations on scrap yard sales, Stickle said the thieves he interviewed for his research would simply distance themselves from the transaction by selling indirectly.
They knew scrap dealers “were taking pictures of the metal, they knew they were taking drivers’ licenses, so they would call a friend of theirs and sell it to them, and that person would go and sell the metal,” he said.
This content was originally published here.