Southern Arizona seeing fewer copper crooks

TUCSON, AZ - Officials in southern Arizona said falling copper prices have resulted in the number of thefts dropping too, the Arizona Daily Star reported this week.

Business owners in Tucson and Pima County said they have been targeted less frequently for the metal.

"We're not getting hit as hard," Tucson city spokesman Michael Graham said. "But in the past several years we've taken a big hit."

Some say more awareness of copper theft and heightened security measures have contributed to the decrease.

Thieves have taken everything from copper wiring to bronze plaques and traded them for cash.

"They get pennies on the dollar, and it's costing us thousands in repairs," Pima County Parks Department spokesman George Kuck said.

Past cases include paying $50,000 to replace wiring at the Rillito Park Racetrack in Tucson and $80,000 to install lock boxes on electrical systems for field lights at local parks.

Amber Smith, executive director of the Metropolitan Pima Alliance, said Tucson spent several hundred thousand dollars last year to fix the damage of those thefts.

The alliance established a task force two years ago specifically focused on metals theft. The group met with 100 local businesses to make sure they were aware of the problem and the importance of reporting any incidents to police. The task force has also lobbied for state laws that toughen penalties for those who knowingly purchase stolen metal.

In rare cases, suspected thieves suffered severe injuries or worse. Last month, Tucson Electric Power found a man's body next to a pair of bolt cutters in an underground electrical box. Authorities are still trying to identify him but say he was possibly trying to steal the wiring. In August, a man in Wellton was trying to steal copper wire from a utility pole when he was critically injured from burns and electrical shock. He is being investigated for other scrap-metal thefts, according to the Yuma County Sheriff's Office.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau says more than 800 insurance claims for copper theft were reported in Arizona from 2011 to 2013.  Some thefts may go unreported, however, because businesses are afraid of their insurance rates being raised, Smith said.

The alliance estimates metal theft has cost $120 million in damage statewide.

Copper currently trades at a little over $3 per pound, according to Nasdaq. The rate was about $4.50 in 2011.

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