'The great copper heist'

Metal theft is on the rise around the world

An already delayed hockey season was dealt another blow in Lambton Shores, Ont., after a thief broke into the town’s still-under-construction Legacy Arena in January and gutted the building of $12,500 worth of copper pipes and wires. Since then, Mayor Bill Weber says security around the building has been ramped up. “The contractors have hired overnight guards to police the site,” explains the wary mayor.

Copper theft isn’t just a problem in Lambton Shores. Edmonton officials recorded more than 50 cases of copper-wire heists over the past several years, including one recent robbery that left 640 Telus customers in the city without phone service after thieves swiped 500 m of copper cable near their homes. In Windsor, Ont., a Chrysler assembly line worker was arrested this month for allegedly executing a nine-month plan that involved smuggling $85,000 (or 5,800 lb.) worth of copper out through the plant gates.

Metal theft in general is on the rise, leaving commodities analysts to wonder at “the great copper heist” unfolding around the planet. In the U.K., metal theft is becoming the fastest-growing crime. South of the border, metal bouquet vases have disappeared from graveyards, and last summer, a thief used a forklift to steal other forklifts in Portland, Ore., which were then sold for scrap.

These robberies may be about to get much worse with booming metal prices. Just after the new year, the cost of copper hit an all-time high of US$4.45 per pound, up 15 per cent from early December. In 2011, demand for the resource is expected to outstrip supply by 635,000 metric tonnes—the biggest shortage since 2004, notes Paul Kedrosky on his Infectious Greed blog. This deficit is partly caused by dwindling mine supplies and the surge in demand for copper from emerging markets such as China and Brazil.

Until the supply deficit ends, the copper heists seem all but certain to continue. As Sgt. Pierre Chamberland of the Ontario Provincial Police says, “Copper theft is cyclical, and the criminal element will target the metal when it”s most valuable.” He adds: “These crimes will rise and fall with the value of metals.”

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