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Emily Welker, Published March 01 2013

Copper thefts take their toll on Fargo-Moorhead

FARGO – Driven by high resale prices, steady thefts of copper and metal from area businesses have cost area business owners thousands in both losses and in security improvements.

One Fargo businessman said he was hit three times by metal thieves in the past year and a half. Thieves have broken in through the door, torched through an old safe and stolen about $40,000 worth of metal, he estimates. One burglary was on Christmas Eve, he said, when thieves knew no one was minding the store. Two of the break-ins have been traced back to people who used to work for him.

“You feel violated, obviously,” said the man, who doesn’t want himself or his business to be identified because he’s worried it will make him more of a target.

“The thing that I worry about – insurance will cover the loss – but someone’s using a forklift alone, unsupervised, and someone gets injured, lays there dying,” he said. “You open yourself up to all kinds of issues.”

Area police say as long as prices stay high and there is a market to fence stolen metal, the thefts seen over the past couple of years will be difficult to stop. Authorities don’t track thefts by the type of item stolen, so there is no hard data on metal thefts. But area law enforcement officials say despite renewed efforts to combat them, metal thefts remain a common problem.

Fargo and Moorhead police increase patrols of businesses after reports of thefts, and they’ve tried to convince business owners to harden themselves as targets. Like any other burglar, copper thieves seek out the simplest jobs.

Fargo Lt. Joel Vettel said he recommends alarms, surveillance cameras and locks.

Vettel said one company, Fargo Electric Construction, didn’t take police suggestions about how to tighten up security and was hit twice in a short period of time by copper thieves.

“I don’t want to say they didn’t follow through – but at the end of the day, you need to do more,” said Vettel, noting the business was burglarized on Friday and the police weren’t notified of the crime until

Monday, which hampers their ability to respond. “Alarm systems are extremely important.”

The owner whose business has been hit three times has already done a lot to protect himself as it is, he said, installing new fencing, security doors and barbed wire around the business, even cameras, at a cost of around $20,000 overall. “But they just wreck more stuff to get it,” he said. Two doors down, at another business, he said, thieves did just that, cutting through the fencing.

Police say the best defense has been to make it more difficult for thieves to sell their stolen copper in the area and that they get good cooperation from in-town scrap metal dealers.

But with prices remaining high – at $3 to $3.20 a pound for copper, according to local scrap metal dealers, down from highs of as much as $4.50 a pound – that means thieves just go out of town to sell.

Jim Bernath, of Bernath Construction in Fargo, said he hears of local thieves taking their hauls all the way to Chicago or Denver.

The stolen copper market is lucrative enough that thieves aren’t just willing to pay the cost of hauling the stolen goods out of town, where buyers are less likely to ask questions. They’re also willing to take a hit on the sale cost overall.

Jim McCoy runs Valley Scrap Metal and J & M Truck Sales near Barnesville, Minn., and he said copper worth $50,000 in a legitimate sale will only bring thieves about $10,000 to $17,000 when it’s fenced.

McCoy, one of the scrap metal dealers local law enforcement says has done a lot to help them bring in shady sellers, agrees there’s not much market locally for scrap metal that bears signs of being stolen. But with no serial numbers, it can be hard to tell.

“If I’ve got any doubt in my mind, I pick up the phone and call. I don’t need money that bad I need to buy stolen stuff,” he said.

McCoy’s business is also covered by a Minnesota law that requires scrap metal dealers to get a copy of the seller’s driver’s license and a picture of the seller’s car and license plate.

North Dakota doesn’t have a similar law, but Fargo has a city ordinance that requires scrap dealers to keep records of what they’ve bought, who the seller is, where they live and how much money the scrap dealer paid for it.

A bill introduced in the North Dakota Legislature this year would require scrap dealers throughout the state to keep records similar to Fargo’s city law. The bill, Senate Bill 2151, has passed the Senate but not the House.

Moorhead Police Chief David Ebinger said he is concerned recent thefts in the Twin Cities might show metal thieves are getting increasingly desperate and could be a sign of thing to come in Fargo-Moorhead.

Ebinger said he hears from colleagues there who say thieves are cutting into cars to steal their catalytic converters and into homes to steal their copper wiring.

Clay County Sheriff Bill Bergquist said the house thefts are not unheard of here – several flood buyout homes in Georgetown, Minn., were broken into by thieves who punched through the Sheetrock to yank out copper wiring and plumbing, wrecking their resale value.

Bergquist, Ebinger and the Fargo police are all strongly behind Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s proposal to make metal thefts a federally regulated offense. It would make it a federal crime to steal metal from critical infrastructure and would require all scrap metal dealers to keep detailed records for two years, require purchases of more than $100 to be done by check rather than cash and would make sellers declare in writing that they’re authorized to sell the metals in question.

From 2009 through 2011, there were 25,083 insurance claims nationwide related to metal theft, an increase of 81 percent over claims made between 2006 and 2008, according to a report from the National Insurance Crime Bureau cited by Klobuchar. More than 96 percent of 2009-11 claims were for copper, according to the study.

That study reported only five claims in North Dakota and 224 claims in Minnesota over those three years, but local police say they’ve seen more metal thefts in the recent years.

Klobuchar, a Democrat, re-introduced the bipartisan bill Wednesday, a proposal Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., is co-sponsoring.

“It’s really a necessary act, I think,” Ebinger said. “We’re still getting hammered.”


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Readers can reach Forum reporter Emily Welker at (701) 241-5541