Enterprising thieves steal X-ray film to extract silver

As prices of silver soar, so too do the scams intended to cash in

The once common practice of cashing in on building materials by stealing and reselling copper pipes and wiring is passé. There’s a new hot commodity on the market, as several hospitals are now discovering.

Posing as an employee of a recycling company, a man is alleged to have walked into hospitals in the Toronto, London and Ottawa areas and made away with barrels of X-ray film. He was caught with 30,000 X-rays and now faces fraud charges. The film contains a small amount of silver, a commodity whose price has been soaring in recent years, hitting $35 an ounce last week, up from $17 in 2010. That’s prompting enterprising thieves to find increasingly creative methods (or scams) to extract the precious metal. There have also been cases of X-ray film theft at hospitals across the United States, most recently in Philadelphia and Delaware.

According to the Toronto Police Service, the thieves making off with the film usually end up cashing in the extracted silver at independent jewellers. Older film has about 12 grams of silver per kilogram (or just under half an ounce), while the newer variations have only five. Still, a few hundred dollars worth of silver is enticing enough for some crooks, who use an electrolysis machine (which is easily available online or at science supply stores). It leaches the silver out of the film and leaves silver flakes behind. It’s not only X-ray film that contains silver—regular camera film also has it. However, in the last year, film producers have been moving away from a reliance on silver in film, mostly due to its high cost.

Scotiabank commodity specialist Patricia Mohr says there are two factors that have driven up silver prices lately. For one, they tend to follow the price of gold. But silver also has the added benefit of being less expensive than gold (which is roughly $1,700 per ounce), and so is popular with retail investors. It’s also used across the board in our electronic goods—your cellphone and flat-screen TV are made with silver. Just don’t try cracking them open expecting to get rich: you’d need one tonne of cellphones to yield three kilograms of silver, worth about $3,700.

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