While realty signs in front of homes for sale are designed to lure potential buyers, they may just as likely to attract unsavory individuals – copper thieves.
In the words of one Laurinburg real estate agent, who has been selling real estate in the area since the 1980s, copper theft has become an “epidemic” in Scotland County.
“We’ve never had problems with thefts like this,” said the agent, who did not wish for her name to be printed. “Every once in a while someone would steal a water pump, but as far as stripping out copper it’s been unusual until recently. It’s been getting progressively worse for the last five years and it’s just gotten to almost an epidemic situation. A lot of rental people don’t put signs in front of their properties when they’re vacant because they don’t want people to know they’re vacant.”
In the last three months, the agent aid that she has had copper stolen from homes she is marketing in Laurinburg, Maxton, and Wagram.
“For the most part these were vacant houses that were for sale,” she said. “It’s been thousands of dollars - in the larger older home in Maxton between the plumbing, the copper under the house, and the heating and air conditioning, it’s been about $16,000.”
In December, five incidents of copper theft were reported to the Scotland County Sheriff’s Office, with another last week. The crime is equally problematic within the city limits, according to interim Police Chief Kim Monroe.
“It has been a problem for several years now - it depends on the fluctuation in the price of metal,” Monroe said. “You’ll see a decrease and you’ll see an increase depending on the price. Rental houses and places that are not occupied are definitely prime targets.”
Currently the price of new copper is $2.45 per pound, with used copper bringing $2 to $2.40 on the market. Thefts from vacant homes are common, as well as from abandoned manufacturing plants and electric substations, and damages to the facility usually far exceed the valued of stolen copper.
“The price of it is not that bad, it’s the damage they do to get it,” said Lt. John Edwards of the Scotland County Sheriff’s Office. “You go into a house and start taking the air conditioner away, it’s not the $200 part sold for $20, it’s the $5,000 air conditioning unit that has to be replaced.”
Theft of over $1,000 worth of metal is classified as a felony. However, tracking and prosecuting copper thieves is not without difficulty, as one pile of metal is nearly impossible to distinguish from the next.
“Once they tear everything apart, the problem you come into is identifying that wire because it’s not like it has a serial number like your car does,” said Edwards. “Wire is wire. A lot of times you know by common sense who does it, but it’s another thing to prove it. Just because they sold copper doesn’t mean that they stole that copper.
According to Edwards, thefts from electric substations tend to be the work of copper thieves who specialize in stealing from those facilities in Scotland and surrounding counties. In the case of substations, often stolen metal turns out to be worthless.
“The industry’s changing the way they’re doing things,” Edwards said. “Power companies are replacing copper wires with aluminum, and it even says that there’s no scrap value to it. They’re doing a whole lot of work to steal these wires that look like copper.”
Local thieves are more likely to target homes, working in groups to steal significant quantities of copper.
“If you have a significant amount of copper, most of the time it’s in groups,” Edwards said. “I’ve actually gone out and caught people and arrested them in the act of stealing it from abandoned warehouses and factories. They went to do that like an 8-5 job; they had a cooler with sandwiches, snacks, and drinks, and when they were done they would call somebody to pick them up, load up the copper, and leave.”
Many copper thefts require a basic understanding of or experience with electrical wiring, which has foiled a few attempts in the past.
“It’s actually hazardous; if you don’t know what you’re doing you can have an explosion,” said Monroe. “We’ve actually had that happen and the person suffered second-degree burns. If you’re not familiar with wiring, you can be burned severely.”
Most stolen metal is destined to be sold to scrap yards, many of which have implemented regulations to help track stolen goods. In the last year, Scotland Salvage and Recycling began taking photographs of everyone bringing in a load of metal, with the metal also in the photo. According to employee Jamie Pruitt, those bringing in metal are required to be fingerprinted and show state-issued identification.
To prevent theft, Edwards said that homeowners should be sure to inspect their property at least once a week, and to report anyone burning fires that smell like burning plastic, as thieves will often burn the coating off of copper wiring to bring a higher price.