Ohio’s next step on metal thefts: Recording sales

Ohio has started testing a database of scrap metal sales as the next step in an ongoing battle against metal thefts, which have struck the state harder than most.

But as that process begins, the scrap metal industry has expressed disappointment that the Ohio Department of Public Safety has not progressed faster in rolling out the database for widespread use. It had hoped dealers throughout the state would be able to input sales information that law enforcement could access for use in investigating possible thefts, fraud or other metal crimes.

The department of public safety says it is on track to reach that level by this summer after testing the database with selected dealers. Regardless of the timeline, both sides agree metal thefts continue to be a significant problem in Ohio. They say a new law that created three elements — a sales database, a registry of scrap metal dealers and a “Do Not Buy” list of possibly fraudulent sellers — is an important step toward universal guidelines.

These moves come as Ohio ranked first nationally in an insurance industry report for metal theft claims from 2010-12.

“We want a workable system that everyone treats the same,” said J. Jeffrey McNealey, a Columbus attorney who represents the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. in Ohio.

An Ohio law signed in 2012 started the new process by requiring scrap metal dealers to register with the state, which was expected to lay the foundation for a universal reporting system. It also tasked the department of public safety with creating and maintaining a database for reporting sales — including information on the seller and the items purchased by the yards — and a “Do Not Buy” list accessible by all scrap yards.

The intent is stopping the anonymity that sellers formerly experienced in many of their sales.

“When you have some place to go and sell them — that’s what the law is targeting,” said Lt. Anne Ralston, an Ohio Department of Public Safety spokeswoman. “We want to limit the number of places where people can sell and where they can go.”

Ohio’s laws already limit some items that can be sold to scrap yards, including catalytic converters and any wiring that includes burnt ends, which signals it was removed without permission. That continues to happen often. Last week, for instance, two men were arrested after police found eight traffic lights in a truck they were driving.

Thefts also frustrate business owners. Brett Houseman of Dayton’s First Tool Corporation said he has two storage facilities that are regularly broken into by copper thieves.

“We can’t keep up with it,” Houseman told NewsCenter 7 last week. “Every time we come in here we try to fix something, the next day what we’ve fixed is already stolen again. We just can’t keep up with it.”

Beginning in 2008, Ohio law enforcement and scrap metal industry leaders cooperated to produce the state’s first transaction reporting standards. They used a Columbus ordinance that required reporting transactions to police as a base, but that system was carried out mostly in paper copies that were overwhelming, McNealey said.

As a solution, stakeholders agreed that an electronic reporting system would be best and easiest for all involved, even though it came at an expense to scrap yards. Aside from paying to improve technology at some locations to prepare for the reporting system, dealers paid a first-time registration fee of $250 and will pay an annual fee of $150 to sustain the reporting database.

It’s a system the state says it hopes to have in use throughout Ohio by this summer.

“You can’t stop it; you can’t put a cop at every downspout,” McNealey said. “So you have to try and channel this flow through a limited number of data collection points, and from that course of action you figure out (a suspect) is a person of interest and start figuring it out.”