New SC Law to Curb Copper Thefts Expected to Reduce Claims

By SEANNA ADCOX | August 12, 2011

South Carolina law enforcement officers said Wednesday they hope a new state law will cut down on thieves destroying air-conditioning units, farm equipment and other property to sell the copper inner parts for scrap.

Most of the state’s 46 sheriffs are already issuing permits for scrap copper sales to gear up for the law that takes effect next week, said state Sheriff’s Association director Jeff Moore.

“Most are very eager to get this thing in place,” he said. `We did not want 9 a.m. to roll around Wednesday and have 100 people lined up at the sheriff’s office to sell.”

No law can eliminate a crime, he said, but his hope is that it cuts insurance claims in half.

Starting Wednesday, scrap copper sellers and recyclers must have permits from their local sheriff to legally sell or buy the metal.

To buy, metal recyclers must make a copy of a seller’s permit. They also must record information on each sale, including the seller’s photograph and license plate number, the date and amount paid, and a description of the metal. The law also bars cash for copper. Payments must be by check, providing further record of the transaction.

Copper theft calls have become frequent in counties across the state, as the metal’s rising value made it easy money for petty thieves and drug addicts. But investigating the crime is difficult, especially if thieves melt the metal before selling it to remove any identifiers, officers say.

“Unless it’s a specific item you won’t find anywhere else, it’s pretty tough,” Marlboro County Lt. Steve Akers said. “Anything will help. At least this gives us a database of folks dealing with copper.”

He estimates getting five to 10 calls weekly about copper thefts in his rural county.

Between Jan. 1 and May 9, Richland County received more than 250 calls for what it calls the county’s No. 1 crime. The thefts became so frequent that, two years ago, the county assigned an investigator full-time to copper thefts, said deputy Curtis Wilson.

Thieves often collect less than $100, after destroying property worth thousands of dollars.

The average cost to replace a church’s loss for busted air conditioning units is $6,000, said Matthew Quinton of Southern Mutual Church Insurance Co., which began tracking copper thefts separately in 2006.

“But it’s not just a dollars-and-cents issue,” he said, noting that some churches his company insures had to cancel Easter services this year or weddings.

In 2007, the Columbia-based company – which covers about 7,700 churches in the Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee – paid out $406,000 in copper theft claims. The amount dipped in 2009 to $366,000 but skyrocketed to $1.2 million in 2010. From January through July this year, claims had already climbed to more than $1.1 million, Quinton said.

Democratic Sen. Darrell Jackson, pastor of Bible Way Church in Columbia, knows the frustration all too well.

His church, one of the state’s largest, has been hit at least five times in the last couple of years, causing roughly $100,000 in damage. Thieves struck twice within a 10-day period, and twice destroyed units that were on top of a building’s roof and visible from the street, he said, noting one of his insurance providers dropped the church’s policy. Bible Way hasn’t been hit since it paid to install lights, cameras and cages around air conditioning units throughout the church campus, he said.

He attributes the crimes to several factors, including the recession and scrap recyclers not being vigilant.

If crack addicts and thieves show up with some scrap copper, he said, “it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out they probably stole it.”

The president of a scrap recycler in Columbia said theft is the industry’s biggest challenge, and he hopes the bill puts a major dent in it.

Copper’s value makes it an easy target, but companies fear legal consequences if they profile sellers. Just because someone looks dirty doesn’t mean he is a thief, said Fred Seidenberg, president of Mid-Carolina Steel & Recycling.

Between 250 and 400 people walk in with scrap daily, he said, and his employees must be careful not to make accusations. He said he company often calls law-enforcement agencies about transactions that appear suspicious, which can lead to a loss.

“We’re not law enforcement. We’re not trained in questioning these people,” he said. “We’ve got to do something to slow it down. I just don’t know if this is the right answer.”

He expects to hire somebody to keep up with the paperwork the law requires.

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