House bill would crack down on state's copper thieves

COLUMBIA -- A bill on its way to the S.C. House floor would crack down on the theft and illegal resale of copper and other valuable metals, a practice that police say is on the rise.

Members of the full judiciary committee voted in favor of the bill Tuesday.

Under the bill sponsored by Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter:

• Buyers would be required to keep records of sellers' identification and ID numbers, their license plates, if applicable, and fingerprints for five years.

• Sellers could no longer receive cash for scrap; instead, a check or money order would be mailed to the address listed on the identification card presented at the time of sale.

• Thieves would face new charges and stiffer penalties: up to 10 years in prison for causing $5,000 or more in damage to property to steal copper, stainless-steel beer kegs or any product that is a mix of aluminum and copper.

The new charge for damaging property was necessary because thieves will rip up a $10,000 air conditioner for $100 worth of copper, Smith said.

"The message needs to go out that stealing copper is not a petty offense. It's serious," he said.

High-quality copper can fetch more than $3 a pound, and the price fluctuates all day.

Police say theft of copper from homes and businesses has risen in correlation with the increased resale value of copper and other metals in the past two years.

Costly damage

It's impossible to put a price tag on damage caused by copper thieves because insurance companies don't keep that information.

But in 2007, Southern Mutual Church Insurance, a Columbia-based insurer of more than 7,000 churches in North Carolina and South Carolina, handled nearly $500,000 in claims from copper theft and vandalism along with it, said Robert Bedell, company president.

Already this year, the company has handled nearly $100,000 in such claims, he said.

Thieves target air-conditioning units, copper pipes, downspouts and wiring. Homes, businesses, churches and industrial plants are all fair game.

Insurers are recommending policyholders build protective cages around their air-conditioning units, said Allison Love, executive director of the S.C. Insurance News Service.

Smith said he initially was prompted by complaints from builders who had hired private security to patrol their developments at night and property owners who couldn't rent their homes because air conditioners were stripped of copper as soon as they were installed.

On Monday, a Lexington County man was arrested and charged after deputies said they found a large amount of copper wire in the bed of his pickup. Inside the truck, police say, they found power tools, receipts from recycling companies where other copper had been sold, and a list of closed industrial plants in the Midlands.

Fred Seidenberg, president of Mid-Carolina Steel and Recycling, said the increase in value of copper is a result of booming growth in countries such as China and India, the shortage of copper in the world and the weak dollar.