Recyclable metal thefts plummet

Published 12:45 am Saturday, August 28, 2010

Thefts of recyclable metal, a hot item in crime reports two years ago, have seen a “drastic decline” locally following a sag in copper prices and state action to monitor transactions involving the material.

So far in 2010, the Warren County Sheriff’s Department has received four reports of copper thefts, department records show. Last year, one was reported, records show. By contrast, in 2008, 29 copper thefts were reported to the sheriff’s department.

Copper thefts reported to Vicksburg police fell from 27 in 2008 to one in 2009 before rising to eight so far this year, Lt. Bobby Stewart of the Vicksburg Police Department said.

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“We have seen a drastic decline from two years ago,” Stewart said.

Stewart and Sheriff Martin Pace mentioned two reasons that might explain the decline. First, the price of copper has fallen from nearly $3 per pound in 2008 to a statewide average of $2.19 per pound this week. Second, a state law enacted in 2008 requires buyers of copper and other scrap metal to register with the Secretary of State’s Office, keep records of the sales, hold the metal for three days and pay sellers with checks or electronic funds transfer rather than cash.

“That really has had a chilling effect,” Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said, pointing out that the decline in Warren County copper thefts has been mirrored throughout the state.

With $100,000 raised from the private sector, Hosemann’s office established a database to register scrap metal dealers and monitor their transactions under the 2008 legislation.

The law requires a dealer who buys scrap metal to collect the name, address and age of the seller; the date and place of the sale; a description of the property sold; the amount the dealer paid for it; the license plate number, make and model of the vehicle that delivered the metal to the dealer; a photograph or video recording of the seller; and a copy of the seller’s personal identification card.

All that information is sent electronically to the database, which is maintained by the company LeadsOnline and is made available to the Secretary of State’s Office and law enforcement officials.

“It’s the leading software in the country for monitoring transactions such as these,” Hosemann said.

As a scrap metal dealer, Robert Clay, manager of Keyes Recycling on U.S. 61 North, said the 2-year-old law already needs improving.

“All I can do is follow the law and mail the check to the address on the guy’s driver’s license,” he said. “I feel like there can be a better way for him to receive his payment.”

The law limits payment in normal scrap metal transactions to either an electronic funds transfer or a check mailed to the address listed on the seller’s identification card.

Clay estimated that Keyes Recycling’s copper purchases have declined by about 50 percent since the law was enacted, but he said the law might simply be diverting sellers of stolen copper to states that lack Mississippi’s reporting requirements.

“There’s nothing to stop people who steal copper from going to Louisiana,” he said.

To remove that temptation, Hosemann said he’s urged neighboring states to “upgrade” their current copper sales regulations.

Hosemann, a Vicksburg native, also noted that people who transport stolen copper across state lines to sell it are committing a federal crime. “That, hopefully, is some kind of deterrent,” he said.