In August 2023, Ontario Provincial Police reported that $234,000 worth of copper wire was stolen from a property in Clifford, Ont. And in November 2023, 5,000 people west of Kingston, Ont., were without power after grounding copper was stolen from a hydro pole.
The electrical wires running from your cottage’s lamp, TV, or even the toaster are filled with copper wire, which may not look like much, but it’s valuable. Thanks to its conductive and heat-resistant properties, it’s the metal of choice for power and communications transmissions.
Copper wire has become such an everyday necessity that it’s now a prime target for thieves. To better understand why and how it’s happening, here’s everything you need to know.
Why do people steal copper wire?
As with most commodities, copper’s value is driven by supply and demand. The growing use of electricity around the world means that the demand for copper in manufacturing and utilities is greater than the annual production of copper mines, says Ross Johnson, the president of Bridgehead Security Consulting, a firm that specializes in critical infrastructure protection.
Since copper is in short supply, manufacturers recycle old copper by melting the metal down and reusing it—copper is infinitely recyclable, never deteriorating in quality. People can sell old copper to metal recyclers for this purpose, with current prices sitting at over $5 per pound. This, however, opens the door to thieves who sell copper to recyclers for cash. With no way to distinguish stolen copper from legitimate scrap, it’s a quick way for thieves to off-load stolen goods without being traced.
Where do they steal it from?
According to Johnson, the most common locations for copper wire theft are electrical sites, such as electrical substations, and building sites, including residential builds, such as cottages. The average single-family home contains 439 pounds of copper. If left unattended, this is a major attractant for thieves.
Johnson says they’ll often use bolt cutters to remove the copper, stripping it of any outer coating before selling it to a recycler. Spools of copper wire, often found in storage yards, are even more appealing to thieves as they typically contain a large amount of copper and don’t require stripping.
What are the repercussions of stealing it?
Having copper stolen “is very destructive,” Johnson says. “The expense, in all cases, is not the value of the scrap copper, but the cost to repair the damage done. Many thousands of dollars of damage can be incurred to harvest a few dollars worth of copper wire.” And these expenses fall on the property owner.
Stealing copper can also be dangerous. Cutting live wires can cause fires and electrocution. It can also knock out the power and cell service for areas like it did in Kingston. Plus, it endangers workers on the site who might be unaware of an exposed wire.
Across Canada, copper wire theft is typically charged with theft under $5,000 as small amounts of wire isn’t worth much. But due to the crime’s increasing nature, some provinces are attempting to dole out harsher punishments. In Alberta, for instance, Johnson says that Crown prosecutors now ask utility companies to provide the cost of damages caused by the copper theft, not just the cost of the stolen copper.
“Theft under $5,000 can yield a maximum of two years in prison, while theft over $5,000 can yield a maximum penalty of ten years in prison,” he says.
How can you deter copper wire theft?
The easiest way to deter thieves is to increase security around your property, such as adding cameras. Remove any loose copper from the site overnight, and conceal any copper that’s already been installed. Johnson says you can also mark your copper. That way it can be identified as stolen property at a recycler. “If the recyclers won’t take it, then [thieves] won’t steal it,” he says.
On a broader level, Johnson is also advocating for changes in provincial legislation, requiring recyclers to take a copy of the photo ID of anyone selling scrap copper and forbidding cash transactions by recyclers. “This would require copper thieves to use bank accounts to be paid,” he says, “which provides police with a trail to use when investigating theft.”
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