Scrap Metal Theft: Insights, Impacts, and Countermeasures

by | Feb 9, 2024

Scrap Metal Theft

​If you’ve got metal—scrap or otherwise—you’ve got to protect it. Organized and opportunistic thieves are everywhere. Driven by fluctuating prices and a readily available resale market, scrap metal theft—particularly of copper—has ballooned into a billion-dollar problem. The U.S. Department of Energy reports a staggering $1 billion annually in losses due to copper theft alone. Other popular targets include brass, aluminum, and bronze.

This isn’t just a financial issue, either. Scrap metal theft disrupts operations, delays projects, and poses safety hazards. Imagine a hospital facing power outages due to stolen wiring or a construction site grinding to a halt without essential copper components. The consequences extend far beyond the immediate financial hit. In fact, the cost of the damage and delays caused by the theft typically dwarfs the value of the stolen materials, to say nothing of replacement costs.

The allure of quick cash fuels this crime, with thieves targeting everything from construction sites to power lines. But his isn’t just about stolen copper. It’s about billions in lost revenue, crippled businesses, and disrupted communities.

Scrap Metal Theft: The True Costs

The ease of resale (often at unscrupulous scrap yards) coupled with the difficulty of tracking stolen metal creates a lucrative opportunity for thieves. While construction sites and utilities are the most common targets, other industries—everything from warehousing to retail, car lots to office buildings—can also fall victim. The FBI reported 10,572 cases of copper theft in 2019.

Disrupted operations, project delays, and safety hazards wreak havoc on businesses, impacting jobs and livelihoods. They must bear the expenses of repairing damaged fences, doors, or locks, as well as dealing with potential production downtime. In addition, there are costs associated with replacing the stolen materials and installing additional security measures to prevent future thefts. Furthermore, an incident can also harm a company’s reputation.

And while industries bear the direct brunt of scrap metal theft, the effects don’t stop there. Vandalized infrastructure such as streetlights and electrical lines, power outages, and disrupted services ripple through communities, affecting everyone’s safety and well-being. Homeowners often must replace stolen air conditioners and heat pumps or deal with blackouts. These are just a few examples. Finally, the rising cost of insurance premiums because of frequent scrap metal theft affects everyone.

Combatting this issue requires collaboration and vigilance from all parties involved. You can easily calculate the losses in dollars and cents, yes, but these aren’t the only consequences.

Why Scrap Metal Theft Happens

The rise of scrap metal theft in the early 2000s resulted from several factors.

A major one was the high demand for raw materials in the global market, where they can fetch quick cash. The economic downturn and unemployment rates have also contributed to the increase in this type of theft, as people search for ways to make more money. Furthermore, the difficulty of enforcing laws and regulations has made it easy for thieves to dispose of stolen goods without facing consequences.

That’s the bad news.

The good news? The number of reported cases has been dropping. It decreased by 78% between 2014 and 2017, for example, from 12,682 to 2,774.

Why? It’s hard to say for certain, but increased awareness of the issue, and new rules that require recyclers and scrap yards to document each transaction with proof of identity—introduced in the Copper Theft Prevention Act of 2008—are likely the motivators. It’s no longer as easy to stay anonymous when selling stolen metals.

Not as easy, but not impossible, either. And that’s the problem.

Behind the Headlines

Let’s look at some of the biggest scrap metal and scrap yard theft stories in recent news. And some stats you won’t find in the news.

Beer Keg Theft

Manufacturers lose an estimated $50 million annually from lost or stolen kegs. Thieves will frequently check behind restaurants, bars, and pubs for unsecured, empty kegs. Keep them inside and locked up.

Impact on Critical Infrastructure

The theft of metal from critical infrastructure, such as telecommunications towers and power substations, poses serious risks to public safety (besides the $60 million that copper thefts cost utility companies each year). The Department of Homeland Security has warned that metal theft threatens the reliability and resiliency of the nation’s critical infrastructure.

Lights Out

Damage to power equipment by scrap metal theft can be very costly. A single transformer or substation can cost between $500,000 and $11 million, including repairs, replacement, reimbursement, and lost revenue.

Rural Areas Affected

While metal theft is often associated with urban areas, rural communities are also heavily impacted. Farms and ranches are frequently targets for scrap and copper theft, with thieves stealing equipment, fencing, and irrigation materials. The National Insurance Crime Bureau reports that agricultural theft, including metal theft, costs farmers and ranchers millions of dollars each year.

Legislation and Enforcement

Despite efforts to combat metal theft through legislation and enforcement, the problem persists. The National Conference of State Legislatures found that while most states have enacted laws to address metal theft, enforcement varies widely. Many challenges remain, including the difficulty of tracking stolen metal and prosecuting offenders.

What To Do About Scrap Metal Theft

Start with stronger security measures. Install surveillance cameras, lights, and alarms in areas where you store your assets, such as warehouses or construction sites. Properly secure any equipment or materials that someone could easily take and sell for scrap, such as copper wire.

In addition, consider marking all of your assets with a unique identification code to make them easier to track down. Need a creative camouflage solution? Painting copper pipes and wires black is a quick and easy way to make them less conspicuous to passers-by.

Educate your employees about how important it is to follow security protocols and be vigilant. Everyone should stay updated on local regulations regarding scrap metal sales and work closely with law enforcement to report suspicious activity.

Know the popular targets. While any metal is at risk, copper is by far the most coveted. It accounts for north of 95% of scrap metal thefts each year. And exposed appliances like air conditioners and heat pumps—containing 52 and 48 pounds of copper, respectively—are very tempting for thieves. There has also been a surge in catalytic converter thefts in the past few years. Made with palladium and rhodium, a replacement converter can easily cost $1,000 or more.

Tools like Scrap Theft Alert allow law enforcement to inform nearby scrap yards of major thefts. It has helped recover millions of dollars worth of stolen materials.

By taking these proactive steps, you can greatly decrease the likelihood of falling victim and protect your valuable assets.

Deep Sentinel: Your Watchful Eye in the Dark

For after-hours protection, Deep Sentinel is your best protector.

Our innovative AI-powered video surveillance system acts as a virtual security guard, monitoring your property. Upon detecting suspicious activity, trained live agents intervene through two-way audio to deter trespassers, alerting the authorities if necessary. Deep Sentinel’s security monitoring service has a proven track record of preventing crime before it happens, making it a powerful tool in the fight against scrap metal theft.

Remember, you’re not alone in this. By working together, implementing effective deterrents, and leveraging technology like Deep Sentinel, we can turn the tide and protect businesses, communities, individuals, and vital infrastructure from thieves

Need a Solution that Prevents Crime? Deep Sentinel is the only security technology that delivers the experience of a personal guard on every customer’s home and business. Visit or call 833-983-6006

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