Salvage yards and police on the lookout for metal robbers

Lawton_Although the most common items that thieves steal may be TVs, stereos, and other electronic devices, a growing trend has them stealing what is inside your favorite appliances.  Copper and aluminum from electronics, such as air conditioners, are hot items these days, and can be worth more than just a pretty penny.  Although $3 per pound may not seem like a lot, if a thief makes off with a few hundred pounds, that person could make a tidy profit.

On Monday, the Oklahoma State Senate approved, and sent to the Governor, a bill that would provide harsher penalties for scrap metal theft, and require salvage yards to keep detailed records of sources.  Two salvage yards that 7News visited already have been taking some of the cautionary measures necessary to make sure they can avoid buying stolen metal.  They support the new bill, which will make scrap metal theft a felony, instead of only a misdemeanor.

The salvage yard managers do everything they can to make sure they aren't purchasing stolen material.  "If it's any copper, or copper alloy, or aluminum, or aluminum alloy material, we've gotta get a driver's license number, and a tag number," says Larry Sanner at Sanner Pipe and Salvage.  They also must keep a record of how much metal has been bought.

Lawton Recycling began keeping records in a computer database that they starting using last August.  "We have recorded, day one, 10 pounds of copper and over, names, descriptions of vehicles, IDs," said Lawton Recycling Office Manager Heather Mathews.  "It's actually helped in many investigations."

Although not everyone selling scrap copper obtained it illegally, more than 20 pounds and rolls of new copper brought in may seem suspicious.  "120 pounds at a time, 300 pounds at a time, that's not normal," said Mathews.  "There's something going on there."  There is no benefit for salvage yards to purchase stolen metal, because when it's lost, the police get busy tracking it down.

A Duncan electric repair shop owner, who declined to be identified, says thieves broke into his business multiple times, and stole hundreds of pounds of copper and aluminum.  "They actually spent the weekend down at the building," he said.  "They tore apart some transformers, and tore out some coils out of some condensing units."  He said he caught the thieves, which he says is difficult when dealing with copper because it isn't traceable.  "It just so happened we had pictures of the coils that these culprits had in the back of the pick up, and knew exactly where they came from."

Once the police trace where the metal was sold, the salvage yards must turn it over to authorities, so there is certainly no benefit to the salvage yard for purchasing stolen goods.  "They confiscate the material we've bought that's stolen, and when they arrest whoever stole the material, we get nothing," said Sanner.  We lose the material that we bought and normally don't get any money back."

Metal stolen out of appliances - particularly air conditioners - can cause environmental damage as well.  The repair shop owner who was robbed said he called the Environmental Protection Agency to find out if the robbers could be prosecuted for releasing freon from the A/C units since it is illegal.  He said they told him that he would be the person held responsible, and face a fine of up to $2,500.

The bill awaits a signature from Governor Brad Henry.