TrendFBI: Growing copper theft threatens U.S. critical infrastructure

Published 5 December 2008

The FBI says that, individually, isolated instances of copper theft cause big enough headaches of their own, but taken together, they present a significant problem for the United States — a threat to public safety and to U.S. critical infrastructure

Steeling copper is not merely a criminal activity. According to the FBI, it has serious homeland security implications. Here are three examples:

  • Last April, when tornadoes were threatening Jackson, Mississippi, many residents were not alerted to the severe weather because five tornado warning sirens did not work. The reason: the sirens’ copper wiring had been stolen.
  • A month earlier in Polk County, Florida, nearly 4,000 residents were left without power after thieves stripped copper wire from a transformer at an electric company facility. Estimated losses: $500,000, to say nothing about the homeowner hassles.
  • Late last year, vandals removed 300 feet of copper wire from a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) tower in Ohio, threatening to interrupt communications between in-flight aircraft and air traffic controllers.

Now, the FBI says that, individually, these isolated crimes cause big enough headaches of their own, but taken together, they present a significant problem for the United States — a threat to public safety and to U.S. critical infrastructure.

A recent FBI criminal intelligence report scoped out the problem and is driving new solutions. Among the findings: “The demand for copper from developing nations such as China and India is creating a robust international copper trade,” and as the global supply of copper continues to tighten, “the market for illicit copper will likely increase.” From 2001 until 2008, the price of the metal has increased by more than 500 percent.

The thieves — many of whom are drug addicts or gang members — may act individually or as part of organized groups and are interested in the quick cash they get from selling copper to scrap metal dealers. Their targets include electrical substations, railroads, security and emergency services, and other sensitive sites. Already, copper thefts have been responsible for shutting down railway systems and even 9-1-1 emergency systems.

On the surface, it could be a relatively small theft,” explained an FBI agent who specializes in major theft crimes and who commissioned the report after getting wind of the problem, “but the public safety impact could be significant.” Copper thieves may not intend to compromise critical infrastructure, but they can still be charged with more weighty federal crimes, the agent said.

The FBI notes that the fact that most copper thefts involve a relatively small amount of money, often take place in rural areas, and are investigated by local law enforcement agencies helps explain why, until recently, the implications of these crimes fell below the radar of federal law enforcement. The FBI intelligence analyst who wrote the report spoke with nearly 150 people from local and state law enforcement and with officials from railroad and energy companies. “Everywhere I went,” she said, “someone had something to say about the problem of copper theft. But nobody had the big picture.”

Several informal task forces between local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies have been established to combat copper theft, most notably in Nevada. In one such case, they are charging a copper thief with a more serious federal statute that can carry up to a 20-year sentence.

There is still a lot of work to be done, our agent acknowledged, but now, the serious issues surrounding copper theft are known and being addressed,” the FBI says.