EUGENE, Ore. -- You could call metal theft the crime of the summer in Lane County.
Thieves tore the wiring out of a machine shop, stripped underground wires from lights along a Eugene bike path, cut grounding wires from electrical utility substations and even stole overhead phone lines, cutting service to an entire neighborhood.
Police say the thefts are often made by transients and drug users looking for quick money. And thefts are down now, likely due to market forces: the price of metal is dropping, from $3 a pound for copper down to less than $1.
But the question remains: who is buying stolen metal -- and how can it be stopped?
Electric utility a frequent victim of theft
In late September, thieves struck five Eugene Water and Electric Board substations in a span of just a few days. EWEB believes the suspects hauled off at least 200 feet of copper wire.
"This is an issue and problem that's gone from being a nusiance to really an epidemic," said Lance Robertson with EWEB.
Robertson said that during the summer, thieves could sell the stolen wire for as much as three dollars a pound.
That begs the question: who's purchasing it?
"It's not clear who's actually buying the stolen material," Robertson said, although he mentioned a few possibilities.
One is that small, unscrupulous metal dealers buy the metal and don't care about the criminal implications.
Another is that thieves, afraid of being recognized locally, aren't selling in Lane County.
"It could be that the material is being stockpiled and the moved out of the area and sold," Robertson said.
Police say that thieves just take the metal to the same place everyone else does.
"The stolen stuff is going through our recyclers," said Det. Johann Schneider, "whether it's going through locally or they're taking it out of town, it's going through our recyclers."
Robertson doesn't blame the recyclers.
"Someone walks in with a bunch of wire or walks in with other materials, it's very difficult to tell was that stolen, was that not, because there are no real clear identifying marks it," he said.
Metal recyclers take steps to avoid buying stolen metal
Copper wire is the most common target. At Schnitzer Steel, they're on the lookout for suspicious sellers.
"A sign of something that might be fishy might be someone riding in on a bike," said Chris Gerlitz, general manager of Schnitzer Steel.
Gerlitz said Schnitzer also enforces a 2007 law that requires metal recyclers to ask for photo ID and conduct video surveillance.
"We've added multiple security systems, we've added photography of the vehicles or the conveyance they use to come into the yards," he said.
Eugene police say the current law doesn't do enough. They're pushing for new regulations that would force dealers to mail sellers a check, which they say would cut down on thefts by transients.
They also want mandatory sales reporting.
"So we start seeing the same names over and over again, going, well where's he getting it from?" Schneider said.
Schneider said a similar law has reduced metal theft in Washington.
But the market for metal may be doing more than any law.
The price for copper wire has fallen to less than a dollar per pound, so criminals can't get as much bang for their buck.
"Our thieves are predominantly lazy, it appears," Schneider said, "and so the theft of metal has dropped considerably."
Robertson said that's likely temporary and that when prices rebound, so will thefts.
"I don't know if we'll ever stop this from happening," he said. "The ultimate magic bullet would be to do something about the drug abuse problem that we have."
One thing local utilities have tried is color-coding the wires with spray paint.
But so far, very little of the stolen wire has been recovered.