Springfield ranks ninth in the state for cities with the most scrap metal theft claims over the past three years.
Ohio is attempting to reverse its climbing numbers with a newly launched scrap metal database to aid law enforcement in identifying thieves.
For the fourth consecutive year, Ohio ranked first in the U.S. in metal theft claims to insurance companies, and was one of only a dozen states to see an increase in claims from 2013 to 2014.
“The thieves that are taking scrap metal out of buildings are literally destroying the city of Springfield,” said local attorney Tom Lagos, who owns dozens of rental properties. He won’t even put a for rent sign outside his buildings in some neighborhoods because it invites scrappers.
The entire community pays with higher insurance rates and depreciated property values, he said.
“We need to provide a more comprehensive way of making sure that the thieves cannot sell their stuff at the scrap yard,” Lagos said.
That’s exactly what the new laws aim to do, said Dustyn Fox, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Public Safety, Homeland Security.
“They’re a business just like any other business and they want to be able to continue,” he said of legitimate scrap and recycling businesses.
The new laws aim to put some standards in place to even the playing field and prevent theft, Fox said.
Local law enforcement and scrap dealers say their partnerships and the online tools are curbing the problem in Clark County.
“All of our metal places work really well with us,” Clark County Sheriff’s Detective Jim Hollopeter said.
Some have been voluntarily reporting suspicious items to deputies for years, he said, and they’ve been working to get all the scrap yards in the county to enter their transactions into a statewide law enforcement database.
The state helped those efforts along with the passage of Senate Bill 193 in 2012, which took full effect in February.
Licensed scrap metal dealers are now required to report their transactions online on a daily basis, said Adam Dumes, vice president of Cohen Recycling, which runs more than a dozen Ohio scrap yards and recycling centers, including one in Springfield.
The information entered into the Dealer Daily Transaction Database must include photos of the person selling the metal and of the items.
The database, maintained by the state, can be accessed by law enforcement investigating thefts, Fox said.
In return, local law enforcement populates a “Do Not Buy List” with individuals who have been convicted of metal thefts. Dealers then check customer IDs against that list before every purchase.
Many people have been turned away because they are on the list, Dumes said, leading to a drastic decrease in the number of thieves being able to fence stolen goods through the recycling center.
“(Metal theft) has really given the recycling industry a black eye,” Dumes said.
He hopes by partnering with law enforcement they can be part of the solution rather than the problem.
Ryan Hill manages the Springfield Cohen location and said he’s noticed a big drop in the number of visits from law enforcement since the new laws went into place.
But another factor in the recent drop off may be a rapid fall in commodity prices, he and Dumes said.
Prices paid for all metals are about half what they were a year ago, Hill said, so criminals may be turning elsewhere.
The measures implemented this year will hopefully continue to curb metal theft even if prices bounce back, Dumes said.
Detectives have noticed a decrease in theft reports locally in the past couple of months as well, and Hollopeter said there may be some correlation to repeat offenders being caught and locked up.
In February, 34-year-old Joseph Massie was arrested after deputies witnessed him stealing an air conditioner from North Hills Church on Moorefield Road. He was arrested after he put the unit inside his van and started to leave the church parking lot.
He was charged with stealing from multiple local churches and is serving two months in jail on six counts of theft.
In addition to theft claims, scrappers can cause serious damage that can affect insurance rates.
The largest blaze in the past decade was likely sparked by a scrapper at the Tri-State Pallet warehouse in downtown Springfield on Jan. 6.
“Someone was using a torch to take metal from the building on the exterior, and the molten metal did start the fire,” Springfield Fire Marshal Brian Miller said.
The warehouse was a total loss, cost $80,000 to demolish and cost the city more than $6,000 in overtime to extinguish the fire.
The warehouse was occupied by a business, Miller said, but most of Springfield’s metal thefts occur in vacant buildings.
The Springfield Fire/Rescue Division responds to many fires at vacant structures, he said, and that’s also where most firefighter injuries occur.
“Vacants are really the root of the story, and metal thefts are a symptom,” he said. “It is an urban problem. It’s not necessarily found in the more affluent communities. Our demographics in Springfield kind of make us susceptible to that.”
Staff Writer Allison Wichie contributed to this report.