The Price of Copper

Replacing copper at Wendy's

The Department of Energy reports that copper theft causes nearly $1 billion in losses to US businesses every year.

What would you do for few hundred bucks? Would you ruin something that cost innocent people thousands of dollars to fix, create a danger to the community, or even risk your own life? It doesn’t make sense, but every time there’s a copper theft that’s exactly the choice the thief is making.

Copper theft started becoming a problem in the early ought’s when the price of copper rose from $.80/lb. in 2003 to over $4/lb. in 20061 due to an increase in demand overseas, especially in China and India, combined with a shortage of supply worldwide. It created an opportunity for someone who knew a little about wiring to make hundreds of dollars for just a few hours of work.

The price of copper is down to $3.11/lb. today, but it’s still high enough to encourage thieves. It’s an asset that can be difficult to trace and is easily exchanged for cash. Stagnant economic conditions and general lack of deterrents2 also contribute to the continued interest in copper theft.

Copper has been stolen from everywhere. Telephone poles, construction sights, and unoccupied buildings are especially vulnerable. The thief doesn’t even have to go inside because nearly every commercial building has electrical service that runs from a transformer up the exterior of the building. All they have to do is open the panel, cutting locks if necessary, and pull out the wire.

That’s exactly what happened at Wendy’s on Paseo del Norte and Louisiana last week when thieves pulled out 680 ft. of wire, leaving the restaurant in the dark for a day. The theft cost Wendy’s over $8,000 to replace. They also lost about $4,500 in revenue for the day and employees scheduled to work lost a day’s worth of wages.

Transformer box

About $500 of copper cable was stolen from this transformer box in Albuquerque last week, but it cost over $10,000 in damages.

Although the copper stolen is worth over $2,100 at market price, the thief will probably only get about $500 at a local recycling facility.

The cost can become extremely high for businesses. In 2014, thieves stole $200 of copper from several light poles belonging to a Texas co-op, but it cost almost $19,000 to replace.3 When thieves kept taking copper from light poles along a Miami-Dade highway in 2011, it cost over $200,000 to replace the wiring and install anti-theft devices.4

The Department of Energy reports that copper theft causes nearly $1 billion in losses to US businesses every year.1

Copper theft isn’t a victimless crime. An FBI report noted that copper theft affects critical US infrastructure that “presents a risk to both public safety and national security”.  For example, in 2008 tornado sirens in Jackson, Mississippi did not warn residents of an approaching tornado because copper thieves had disabled warning sirens.2

Safety is also a great concern for the people who have to deal with the wiring itself, whether it’s the thieves or the workers who repair the wiring. With lethal voltage running through it, thieves can, and have, died trying to steal it. Whether they understand the risk is unknown. Although it’s easy to assume they know what they’re doing since most thieves seem to know where to find the copper, there was a case in Albuquerque where a pair of wire cutters were found still attached to a switch at one warehouse. It’s a miracle that person got away.

spool of copper

The rise in copper prices last decade caused a dramatic increase in copper theft.

Considering the staggering costs and dangers, many are looking for ways to deter thieves. On-site prevention ranges from hyping up security to special copper wiring that’s either less desirable to thieves or easily traceable to the rightful owner.

Some utilities try to camouflage copper by painting it, but some think that most thieves see right through this trick. Others install mixed copper wiring, such as copper clad steel, or copperweld, which is difficult to cut and worth much less at the recycling yard. One brand of copper clad steel even etches the name of the rightful owner right on the steel cables, making it easily traceable so recyclers can find out if it’s been stolen.

Recyclers themselves, being the end-person, are finding themselves at the forefront of the copper theft problem. It’s illegal to purchase stolen copper, but how do you know? Many states, including those in New Mexico, require recyclers to enter information about the person who’s selling them the copper. The Sale of Recycled Metals Act took effect in New Mexico in 2009 which requires recyclers to ask for government-issued ID from the seller, and to get the make and model of the vehicles that deliver the metal.

Bulldog Energy Solutions repairing stolen copper cables

Bulldog Energy Solutions replaced hundreds of feet of copper cable stolen from this box in Albuquerque in early October.

But recyclers are frustrated at having the onus for prevention on themselves. As one Albuquerque recycler puts it, “A guy comes in with a truckload of copper and we’ll comply with the state requirements, but if we really think about it, where does he get 100 pounds of copper? Is it our job to say ‘Are you an electrician? Where did you get it?’”5

The penalty to the thief, assuming they make it away unharmed, is the legal equivalent of a slap on the wrist. In 2014, KRQE reported that one known copper thief who caused $24,000 in damages was released on bail less than 24 hours after being booked.6 Some states have begun passing legislation to increase penalties for copper theft and in 2013 a US Senate bill was proposed to make it a federal crime.

If you see suspicious activity, or if you have information about a copper theft, call Albuquerque Metropolitan Crime Stoppers at 843-STOP. Crime Stoppers partners with PNM to fund tips for copper theft arrests.

 


  1. Koba, Mark, “Copper theft ‘like and epidemic’ sweeping US”, cnbc.com/id/100917758. 7/30/13.
  2. “Copper Thefts Threaten US Critical Infrastructure”, FBI Criminal Intelligence Section. fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/copper-thefts. 9/15/08.
  3. Kahn, Michael, “Copper Theft Costs Texas Co-op $19,000”. ect.coop/industry/copper-theft/copper-theft-costs-texas-co-op-19000/76485. 12/16/14.
  4. Hanrahan, Mark, “Copper Thieves Leave Florida Highway in the Dark”. The Huffington Post. 8/31/11.
  5. Kamerick, Megan, “Copper thefts wreak havoc all over”. Albuquerque Business First. 2/21/10.
  6. Garate, Jessica, “Copper theft suspect bonds out of jail”. http://krqe.com. 5/27/14.