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Metal theft has been a problem ever since there was metal. The volume of theft incidents seem to be closely related to the fluctuations in its demand and price. Judging by the high volume of metal theft in the UK and its long history it is then surprising that new legislation to disrupt the market was only recently introduced in 2013.
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It is difficult to provide a precise measure of the problem, but according to the UK Home Office Statistical News Release: Metal theft, England and Wales, financial year ending March 2013 there were 61,349 metal theft offences recorded by the police between April 2012 and March 2013, which represented 2% of all crime in England and Wales (recorded during that period) and which is 1.1 metal offences per 1,000 members of the population
The metal theft offences were categorised as follows:
- 28,843 (47%) Infrastructure-related
- 25,869 (42%) Non-infrastructure-related and
- 6,637 (11%) Not classified
These figures will not give a full picture of the metal theft problem because they are only a record of the reports made to the police and as we know many crimes that take place are not reported to or recorded by the police. In the year 2010/11 the Home Office estimated police reports to be 100,000, so perhaps things are not quite as bad as they were.
In response to what was seen to be a worsening problem the Home Office set up a National Taskforce to work with other government departments and law enforcement agencies to co-ordinate action to tackle the problem.
The taskforce is led by the British Transport Police and targets metal thieves and scrap metal dealers who trade in stolen goods who fuel the demand.
The taskforce also carries out work to disrupt the market through improved intelligence gathering and co-ordinated activity recognising the seriousness of metal theft and the significant damage done to communities, businesses, the UK’s infrastructure telecommunications, rail and power networks.
Part of their work led to the introduction of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013 on 1st October 2013 to replace the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 and the Motor Vehicles Crime Act 2001. It creates a new licensing regime for motor salvage operators and also collectors of scrap metal.
The key features of this new Act include:
- the ability for local authorities to refuse and revoke a licence
- giving courts the power to close unlicensed dealers
- requiring all sellers of metal to provide personal identification at the point of sale
- requiring dealers to verify the identity of sellers
- banning cash transactions for the whole industry without exemption
- providing new powers for the police and local authorities to enter and inspect sites
- creating a single publically available national register of licence holders maintained by the Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales (Dealers in England and Wales can be found on the Environment Agency’s Register)
- widening the definition of a scrap metal dealer to include motor salvage operators
Metal theft is an international problem, because there are new demands from fast growing markets in countries such as China and India. Therefore many countries are introducing similar legislation to the UK. For example, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., standing in front of St. John de LaSalle Roman Catholic Church Niagara Falls, N.Y. last year (which has suffered no less than three metal theft incidents) announced the introduction of The Metal Theft Prevention Act to “crack down on the bandits and the scrap yards that profit off their booty”. (Love it!)
Their new legislation will require documentation of the sellers’ right to scrap the metal, require scrap yards to keep records of the people who turn in the metal, limit scrap yards to a $100 cash return with any amount above that being paid by cheque and would make stealing metal from critical infrastructure a federal crime.
Common locations and targets for metal theft
Although metal theft is a risk in any part of the country it seems that the concentration of scrap metal dealers in and around cities fuels metal theft more in and close to these locations than in the countryside.
We must remember that it is not just the loss of the metal that is the problem. The theft of copper cabling from the railway network in one year is estimated to have cost £16 million and caused major disruption to passenger journeys. The theft of lead and copper from churches and historic buildings has caused untold damage to the building’s infrastructure and sometimes works of art and historically important items and on occasion the thefts have resulted in much increased danger to a building user or the general public. This is then a very serious problem.
Common locations for theft include:
- The Railway Network
- Building sites
- Churches and their graveyards
- Historical buildings
- Unused commercial and domestic buildings
- Residential streets
- Scrap yards
Common targets include:
- Catalytic Converters (for their rare earth metals)
- Beer Kegs (Steel and Aluminium)
- Fencing and reinforcement mesh
- Air Conditioning units
- Gas Boilers
- Copper cable, wiring and pipes
- Manhole covers and street furniture
- Lead from roofs
- Abandoned vehicles
- Bronze plaques
- Statuary (generally bronze)
- Iron gates
- Household items left out for the regular scrap dealer to collect
The dealer thief relationship
Because the metal has no inherent value to the thief he or she has to sell the stolen metal to make a profit and therefore must have access to a fence or illegitimate or hoodwinked dealer who will receive the stolen metal and pay in cash. In other words, like many other crimes there must be a thief and receiver for the crime to take place, although in this case we are talking about a specialist receiver, not just any member of the public.
It is hoped that the changes brought about by the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013 will have a positive effect, certainly on the unorganised and opportunist thief, although there will always be some who will flout the law for a quick profit.
Preventing metal theft
Numerous measures have been put in place in recent years, some targeting the thief and others targeting the receivers. Below is a list of common crime prevention practices which I shall add to as and when new ideas are made known to me. Please use the Feedback button at the top of the page if you’d like to contribute to this page.
Removing the target
- Some building owners have not replaced stolen lead from the roof and have instead used waterproofing materials that resemble lead, but have no scrap value. This may not be practical or possible for most historically listed buildings and structures and will at the very least require planning permission. It is also a fact that unlike some of the replacement materials leaded roofs withstand the elements extremely well and last for many decades with minimal maintenance.
- Plastic pipes are being used to replace copper and other metal pipes
- If you’re going on holiday bring in metal furniture from the garden or store in a secure outbuilding
- Scrap metal should be kept in a secure building or container until there is sufficient to be taken to or collected by a licensed scrap dealer. This is often a problem on building sites where lockable and lidded skips or lorry containers are used. Likewise, new cables, wiring and other sheet and mesh metals should be kept in secure containers.
- Builders now more often order white goods and boilers ‘just in time’ so that they can be installed into a securable building. Many developers temporarily alarm their new buildings and employ security staff at this time.
- Air conditioning units are often installed within a secure steel cage
- Better fencing and access control arrangements to building sites will have a role to play in reducing all types of theft
- The theft of Catalytic Converters has become a real problem for high clearance vehicles in the UK. There are marking and physical security products that can be used to frustrate the thief. See Catalytic Converter theft on this website for more information
Removing the means to commit the crime
- Householders and business owners should arrange for domestic scrap to be picked up by their local licensed dealer by prior arrangement or take it to their local dealer or recycling centre. Take identification documents with you. Although it has become common practice to leave unserviceable white goods outside the house at night, for it to be gone by the morning, this bad practice encourages people into an area who may also take property that they are not entitled to.
- Access to lead roofs should be restricted. Lock ladders away and climbing aids, such as wheeled bins, should be chained up. Anti-climb collars can be fixed to climbable rain water and soil pipes.
- The tightening of the legislation to stop cash payments by dealers will help to some extent
Reducing the value of stolen metal and disrupting the market
- There are a number of proprietary marking products that can be used to mark metals, either chemically, forensically or physically by stamping (often used for lead). Further information can be found on Property Identification – marking, tagging and tracking The effectiveness of property marking will be determined by the support from local scrap dealers and their ability to look for and detect such evidence
- The new legislation will no doubt have a positive effect, because it places checkable responsibilities onto the dealer to prove and record personal identity. The banning of all cash payments will also have an impact, especially on those opportunists who steal specifically for a cash payment, such as drug users and those types who don't like to pay their taxes. However, these new rules will be broken and we will therefore be reliant upon the police and local authorities to carry out checks on dealers and collectors. The message then is to put in place sensible precautions so that you don’t become a victim in the first place
Improving surveillance and detection
- The installation of CCTV cameras with alarm detection has proved to be an effective means of protecting vulnerable roofs. You can select a system to signal a monitoring station and or yourself to your smartphone
- Alarm systems have been developed specifically to protect lead roofs. Like CCTV, these can signal a monitoring station and or signal a smartphone and, of course, activate an audible alarm. Applying signs that warn of their presence can be displayed on the building’s rainwater pipes and at other locations where a climbing attempt can be expected, such as from a flat roof
- Lighting can help in some circumstances. However, for light to be useful there must be a good chance that an intruder in the yard or climbing up onto the roof will be seen from nearby buildings and streets. If there is no prospect of this then the lights could assist the intruder. See Security Lighting on this website and please note that much of what is said about lighting for dwellings is the same for commercial buildings.
- Engage with your local community if you can. This is especially important for churches, historical buildings and building sites. Try to encourage visits close to the premises or site (when taking the dog for a walk, for instance), and ask them to report suspicious sightings to the police
- Cut back overgrown vegetation to improve sight lines onto the building and its elevations
- Ornate gates should be securely hung from their frames, introducing improved and or additional hinges if possible, and the whole structure should be alarmed
- Check with your insurers that your stored new and scrap metal is covered and whether they have asked you for certain security arrangements. Also make sure that you are still covered if your business closes down for holiday periods.
Further resources and websites
Scrapwatch is an easy to use, virtual platform which is helping to combat metal theft across the UK.
Members can report an incident of metal theft which is then posted and mapped on the Scrapwatch website and an alert is issued to all other members. All reports are archived so a geographical picture of metal thefts can be obtained. Membership is free and available to businesses, police, local authorities and any other organisation with an interest in tackling metal theft.
Network Rail How you can help them https://www.networkrail.co.uk/cabletheft/