Copper thieves break into vacant houses, raid construction sites, and even climb cell towers to get their hands on the metal, which they sell to scrapyards.

Law enforcement authorities are blaming a recent spike in copper thefts on a still-struggling economy and increased value of the metal.

In January, 2006, the price of copper was about $2.06 a pound, according to Rachel Lees, senior analyst for the London Metal Exchange.

On Nov. 30, 2011, the price hit $3.36 a pound.

After hitting a low of $1.29 on Dec. 24, 2008, prices climbed, reaching $4.60 Feb. 7, 2011, the highest in a five-year snapshot. Since then, copper prices have ranged from a high of $4.46 per pound in August 2011 to a low of $3.08 in October.

"Copper is a big issue because it gets some of the highest prices on the commodities market," said Gary Bush, National Law Enforcement liaison and director of Materials Theft Prevention for Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.

The numbers of reports of copper thefts are on the rise for a variety of reasons, he said.

Bush bases his statement on the figures from ISRI's online alert system.

"We've seen probably close to 1,600 more alerts this year than in the same time period for 2010. It could be that there are more thefts, or more awareness of the alert system, or both," Bush said. "The bad economy and high fuel prices may be driving the trend, but it's been my experience that people who are stealing just tend to be thieves anyway."

Copper thieves hit close to home

According to police reports and court documents, copper thieves have been busy in our area.

Ÿ In West Penn Township, Chief Brian Johnson said thieves hit a vacant home at Route 309 and Mush Dahl Road between Dec. 20-21, stealing all of the copper pipes in the house.

Ÿ Burglars broke into four Rush Township homes earlier this month, stealing copper pipes.

Ÿ Also earlier this month, burglars broke into a home in the White Bear section of Summit Hill, stealing all the copper pipes, said Police Chief Joseph Fittos.

Ÿ Sometime between Nov. 20 and Dec. 9, thieves stole several copper pipes from a South Lane, Jackson Township, home. Another copper theft happened at a home at 811 Shamrock Lane, also in Jackson Township, between Nov. 26 and Dec. 4.

Ÿ Sometime between Nov. 7 and 14, someone stole 27 feet of copper pipe from a house at 191 Keats Lane, in Towamensing Trails development, Penn Forest Township.

Ÿ On Sept. 12, Kelly Neff and her boyfriend Herman McFarland, both of Palmerton, took copper wire from a Lower Towamensing Township storage dumpster.

Ÿ On Sept. 22, copper thieves cut a lock off a storage shed containing a high voltage power supply for an electrical mining shovel at the company's Cass Township coal mining site. They shut off the power supply to the shovel at the circuit breaker before cutting about 800 feet about $27,360 worth of copper power cable feeding the shovel. They then were able to load the extremely heavy and large black power cable into a vehicle and fled the scene.

Ÿ On Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011, state police at Frackville said that between Nov. 8 and 11, thieves stole 100 feet of No. 2 copper 4 conductor from a conveyor line from another Reading Anthracite property, this one along Route 54 in Mahanoy Township.

Summit Hill police Officer Lori Leinhard said copper was stolen from a Carbon County-owned cell tower on Dec. 21. That same day, she received a report of copper and wiring being stolen in another house burglary.

Damages

Not only does the theft of copper cause headaches for the victims, it can also disrupt power to businesses.

The theft of copper wires from Reading Anthracite's conveyor belt caused electrical problems for the company, state police said.

In August, the U.S. Department of Energy released a report that thefts of copper wiring cost utility companies millions of dollars in 2010.

The increasing numbers of thefts of copper wiring has, in several instances, "interrupted electrical distribution and telephone service in communities across the country. These thefts have also adversely impacted new construction projects, irrigation systems and other infrastructure projects. In fact, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported in an unclassified intelligence assessment that copper thefts threaten the critical infrastructure of the United States.

"Further, an October 2010 report by the Department of Energy's Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability revealed that U.S.-based utility companies suffer several million dollars worth of copper thefts yearly," Inspector General Gregory H. Friedman wrote.

Copper theft also risks the lives of would-be thieves. In December 2010, Jojo M. Sullivan of Bethlehem was electrocuted when he climbed a power pole on Horsehead Industries property in Palmerton to steal copper wire.

Fighting back

Scrap recyclers are turning to innovative technology to thwart copper thieves.

Among the weapons is an online Scrap Theft Alert system operated by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.

"Metal theft is an issue that affects scrap recyclers. It's not hard to realize with the economy being what it is, there is opportunity for criminals to take advantage of the system," said ISRI spokesman Kevin Lawlor.

He said that metal thefts "really hurt scrap recyclers. They are the largest victims of it. If a recycler unknowingly buys stolen scrap, he loses money as well as the scrap."

To combat the thefts, ISRI developed the online alert system, ScrapTheftAlert.com, which operates free of charge. The system sends alerts of metal thefts out over a 100-mile radius within minutes.

ISRI theft prevention director Bush said that 12,621 people have signed up for the service, including 4,497 law enforcement officers.

One of those is Rush Township Police Sgt. Duane Frederick, who listed the recent copper pipe thefts.

Frederick said the system didn't nab the thieves in that case.

"There needs to be some sort of accountability somewhere. I don't want to blame scrapyards they're just making money. There almost needs to be pictures taken of merchandise that is brought in to a scrapyard, and permission given to police to come in and look at them."

Frederick said he knows of cases in which teenagers have stolen their parents' credit cards to buy washers and dryers to sell to scrapyards.

"Too often, the scrapyards don't ask questions," he said.

Both he and Leinhard urged people to be alert and to immediately call police if they see anything suspicious.

"Neighbors need to be on lookout. If they see a random vehicle, or a stranger prowling around, especially near a vacant home, call police. It's better be safe than sorry. Neighbors will tell us two weeks later, 'oh, I saw a truck there'," he said. "That's too late."