Copper Theft: The Metal Theft Epidemic

Scenes from the damage done and the efforts to prevent an epidemic of metal theft from destroying critical infrastructure.

DTE Energy/Michael Lynch

Dangerous Game

As the price of copper has risen, so have the risks thieves are taking to get their hands on it. Here, a copper thief risked electrocution to get a few pounds of copper out of power lines.

DTE Energy/Michael Lynch

Yank and Go

Where there is wire, someone is trying to yank it down, say CSOs at utilities. Rural areas, where thieves can work without getting noticed, have been hit hard, too.

DTE Energy/Michael Lynch

Left at the Scene

A hose used to yank down copper wires in a derelict section of Detroit. To get wires, thieves have been known to cut down utility poles with chain saws, Sawzalls, even axes.

DTE Energy/Michael Lynch

Motown Blues

Detroit has been hit particularly hard by metal theft due to a slumping industrial economy. One DTE Energy facility, CSO Michael Lynch notes, experienced 38 breaking and enterings before DTE surrounded the facility with an 8-foot high corrugated steel wall.

DTE Energy/Michael Lynch

Collateral Damage

The few-hundred dollars of copper lost to a theft like this is only a small fraction of the cost. The cost of repairs, power outages and the potential public safety hazard will easily reach into the thousands of dollars per incident.

DTE Energy


Thus, stories of wildly risky metal thefts are legion, and often harrowing. "We had one in Kentucky up on the pole recently," says Mike Dunn, manager of physical security at American Electric Power. "He cut the wrong wire, got wrapped up in the lines and just hung there upside down, dead, until someone passed by and noticed."

Bonneville Power/Pete Jeter

Substation Carnage

In 2005, a man cut copper grounding wires (similar to the examples inset) at a substation in Oregon. When he bumped his head on a live line, seventy-two hundred volts coursed through him, and he burst into flames.

Phones Down

Inexperienced metal thieves will cut any wire they find. Pictured is an aborted theft; the cable was abandoned when the thief realized it was fiber optic, glass, not copper. Such mistakes have been known to cut off digital phone and data service.

DTE Energy/Michael Lynch

Like Shed Snakeskins

The copper inside this sliced insulation has been removed, and most likely already sold. Thieves usually burn insulation off the wire, since copper's melting point is nearly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, far higher than the sheathing's.

Burn Site

This abandoned brewery in Detroit was used by thieves to burn the insulating sheathing off of copper wires.
DTE Energy/Michael Lynch

DTE Energy/Michael Lynch

Makeshift Chimney

Thieves would hide inside this silo at the brewery and burn wires inside, hidden from view and with plenty of ventilation.

Basic Economics

Copper is in a "deficit condition" meaning more is being used than produced. Low supply plus high demand equals skyrocketing prices. And metal theft has risen in lockstep with the rising value of copper and other metals.

Scott Berinato

Red Gold

A box of sorted copper scrap at a scrap yard in Lynn, MA. Scrap dealers say they take pre-emptive measures to avoid dealing with stolen metal but that it's difficult to tell the difference between stolen scrap and legitimate scrap

Scott Berinato

Heavier Than Hay

2,500 pound bales of scrap copper wire. A proposed "Tag-and-Hold" program would force scrap yards to publish information about each lot of scrap and hold that lot for a week while authorities checked to see if it matched descriptions of stolen metal.

DTE Energy/Michael Lynch


CSO Michael Lynch rewards a Detroit resident who had a good tip on metal theft activity in his area with $1,000. It's the first such reward given in a program Lynch started. Across the street: a burnt-out house, the kind, Lynch says, where metal thieves, having sold their lot for drugs, might go to get high.

DTE Energy/Michael Lynch


DTE Energy CSO Michael Lynch douses a pile of burning wires as the man who had been tending the fire looks on. Lynch suspected they were stolen DTE wires.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.