Metal thefts down, but Ohio still worst in nation

The average price of copper has plummeted in recent years, one reason experts think metal thefts have declined. KATIE WEDELL / STAFF
The average price of copper has plummeted in recent years, one reason experts think metal thefts have declined. KATIE WEDELL / STAFF

Metal theft insurance claims nationwide declined last year to their lowest levels since 2010, but Ohio led the nation in such claims for the fifth straight year.

The reason for the high numbers in Ohio aren’t entirely clear, but the state’s high standing isn’t good news for homeowners, even those who have never been a victim of metal theft.

"Claims are what drive the cost of insurance," said Roger Morris, vice president and chief communications officer for the National Insurance Crime Bureau. "We all pay for this kind of theft one way or another in your homeowners rates or your business rates."

Ohio policy-holders filed more than 4,000 claims in for the theft of copper, bronze, brass or aluminum from 2013 to 2015, or 11 percent of the 36,000 such claims nationwide, according to the NICB. Pennsylvania came in second with about 2,800 such claims over that period.

Dayton, Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati all saw declines in metal theft claims from 2014 to 2015, and statewide claims declined nearly 30 percent.

“What we’ve seen in 2015 is a significant decrease in those types of thefts,” said Dustyn Fox, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Public Safety.

He attributes the decline to the state’s implementation of stricter laws on tracking the sale of scrap metal, essentially making it harder for thieves to fence stolen pipes, wire and other materials.

Local recycling centers have seen a noticeable decrease in the number of police inquiries about possible stolen goods since they began photographing each seller and the items they bring in. Each transaction is entered into a statewide database, said Adam Dumes, vice president of Cohen Recycling, which operates scrap metal recycling centers in Springfield, Troy, Dayton, Middletown and Hamilton.

Dayton Police say they’ve seen success using that database to match up thefts with sales. The city saw a decline from 85 metal theft insurance claims in 2013 to 56 in 2015.

The NICB data only tracks metal thefts for which an insurance claim was filed. Smaller thefts are often not claimed and may never be reported to police, making true numbers on metal thefts difficult to compile.

Cleveland is No. 6

According to available data, Ohio’s major metropolitan areas remain among the worst in the nation for metal theft.

The Cleveland-Elyria statistical area was No. 6 in the country for metal theft claims over the past three years, trailing only New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Baltimore and Atlanta.

The Cincinnati area, which includes all of Butler and Warren counties, was eighth and Columbus was ninth.

Dayton was 30th in the nation and Springfield 98th — both ahead of much larger cities.

Mary Bonelli, spokeswoman for the Ohio Insurance Institute, said Ohio’s place on the theft claims list is puzzling because the state has made progress in deterring such thefts.

At the height of the recession, a surplus of vacant housing was one possible reason, she said. Now new construction sites could account for the high number of theft reports.

“(It’s possible) the types of losses that are occurring in Ohio are larger claims,” she said.

Fox said Ohio doesn’t like to compare itself to others because there may be inconsistency in reporting. Dumes also questioned the NICB data, noting that thieves may be stealing in Ohio and crossing state lines to fence items in places with more lax rules on selling metal.

Copper prices down

Experts attribute the decline in metal theft reports to several factors, including the improving economy. In Ohio, the Department of Public Safety also sees the numbers as evidence that laws which went into effect in 2013 and 2014 have made an impact.

Gov. John Kasich signed SB 193 into law in June 2012, creating a mandatory online registry for scrap metal dealers maintained by Ohio Homeland Security.

Ohio scrap dealers must report transactions daily, including photos of the seller and their items in the online Dealer Daily Transaction Database. The database can be accessed by law enforcement investigating thefts.

“If they know they are going to be on camera, they might thinK twice about that,” said Morris.

Dealers also are required to check the “Do No Buy” list for individuals who have been convicted of theft offenses.

“The list is constantly being updated and we are cross-referencing every person before they enter our facility,” Dumes said.

Cooperation between recycling facilities and law enforcement has never been better, he said. Dumes also is the president of the Ohio Valley Chapter of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, which pushed for the new legislation.

“I think it has been effective,” said Dayton Police Det. Scott Florea, who works with scrap yards to identify possibly stolen items.

He cited a recent case in which a man was stealing AT&T wiring in Dayton and selling it in Kentucky. Florea said police caught up with him by matching photos entered by Kentucky scrap dealers in a national database. He currently faces facing federal charges.

Another factor that has played a role in a reduction in claims is the lower price of copper. Of the 35,961 metal theft claims in the U.S. from 2013 to 2015, 98 percent involved copper, according to the NICB.

In December 2013, the average price paid for copper was $3.67 per pound, according to COMEX, the exchange on which metals are traded. The average price in December 2015 was $2.08, a four-year low.

“If the price of copper soars up from $2.50 or whatever it is now per pound to $5, people might be willing to take that risk,” Morris said.

About 58 percent of metal theft claims nationwide were personal insurance policy claims and the remaining 42 percent were commercial.

“A lot of this is opportunity — it’s vacant houses or it’s new construction sites. They’re stealing wiring or air conditioning units,” Morris said. “We see a lot of it at businesses, churches and things like that where they’re not attended 24 hours a day and they come in and strip it out at night.”

By the numbers

416: Number of registered scrap dealers in Ohio.

3 million: Number of transactions in Ohio's Daily Transaction Database, as of June 2016.

200,000: Number of individuals on Ohio's "Do Not Buy" list.

Source: Ohio Department of Public Safety 2016 Annual Report

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