From gasoline, lumber, and concrete to the metals used in industrial and commercial electrical, it seems like every construction material is more expensive.

Copper theft is nothing new to worksites, but the costs are astounding. According to reports from the U.S. Department of Energy, businesses lose more than $1 billion annually to stealing metal, mostly tied to copper piping and wire. Metal theft has decreased in recent years, thanks to stricter laws, but recovering lost materials is still iffy.

Wire thefts at construction sites, homes, businesses, and other areas can easily cost thousands of dollars. That’s before accounting for lost time spent waiting for new materials, replacing lost wire, and sunk costs. Thieves striking a job site in the dead of night can derail a project, setting workers back days or weeks as they wait to replace stolen materials.

Copper wire thieves aren’t going to miss an opportunity to strike if a worksite is left unsecured. Luckily, there are several ways to fight back against copper theft and keep projects on time and on budget.

Secure the Worksite

The easiest way to invite copper thieves to steal from you is to leave everything in the open where they can see it.

Before the last person leaves for the day, they should ensure locks and deadbolts are locked. Make sure to buy good quality ones, preferably not something that can easily be broken through using some bolt cutters.

Keep all copper wire, tools, and other valuable materials locked away when not in use. If the job is expected to go on for several weeks or months, consider purchasing a metal container like the ones at ports or positioned on train cars. They’re big, can hold everything, and only has one point of entry.

While securing materials, don’t forget to lock down the worksite itself. Copper wire theft isn’t tied solely to criminals running off with loose wiring. If they can drive a vehicle in and take spools of wiring, they will. Limit the number of entry points to one or two and keep all entry points locked when not in use.

Finally, stay vigilant. It doesn’t take much time to perform a site walk-through every now and then to make sure nothing is out of order.

Install Lighting

Installing lighting in critical areas will help prevent theft, especially when a lighting system is combined with a high-quality camera setup. Lights alone may not stop people from trying to steal copper, but it will make it easier to identify them if they’re caught on tape during the act.

Setting up a lighting system is good for doing more than deterring theft. It can reduce the risk of nighttime hazards like tripping or slipping while offering a layer of safety for people passing by the worksite.

Invest in Fencing

This should not come as a surprise to anyone, but construction sites aren’t exactly the safest places for unqualified people to wander around.

By putting up a fence, workers can avoid having passersby accidentally entering the site and keep thieves at bay. Of course, fences are only useful if they work. Lock up entry points at night and when the site isn’t active. Don’t leave things nearby that can be used to climb over the fence.

Be careful of items like these being too close:

  • trees 
  • ladders 
  • vehicles 
  • pallets 
  • scrap piles 
  • dumpsters

If any of these items are in a spot that makes a fence easier to scale and jump, move them.

Other ways to deter worksite theft include using signs to prevent people from entering the site. They can be no trespassing signs or security warnings, but they should be visible and placed at regular intervals along the fence line to be easily seen from wherever someone might approach.

Lastly, limit the number of access points available – ideally, one way in, one way out. Don’t give people multiple ways to make off with your copper wire, catalytic converters, and other costly materials and tools.

Construction sites may be targets for thieves hoping to find unsecured materials. - Kris-Tech (Photo by Chuttersnap on Unsplash.)Consider Investing in Surveillance

Setting up cameras throughout the worksite might feel like Big Brother is watching, but surveillance systems make it easier to see what’s happening when you aren’t there and catch bad actors red-handed.

At the very least, a camera system can help police put a face to an action. When you can see who stole the materials, it’s easier to identify the culprits, find license plates, and other identifiable clues. That information will make it easier for law enforcement to track down and possibly retrieve stolen property.

Additionally, cameras can serve as training tools for workers, showing them what and what not to do on the site. It opens the door for managers and foremen to correct bad habits before they cause problems and reward good actions as they occur.

If cameras aren’t your thing, or if there are precious metals or other expensive materials, tools, or vehicles on the job site, consider bringing in a security guard. These badge-wearing professionals can prevent thieves and other vandals from stepping onto the site, limit access to restricted areas, and even maintain control if issues arise between workers.

Another option is to work with local police or law enforcement officials to have additional patrols go by the site during off-hours.

Don’t Forget to Report Thefts When They Occur

The worst thing you can do if you’ve been robbed is nothing.

If you suspect there might have been a theft case at the worksite, call 911 and report it to the police. Simply chalking an incident up to lost materials is poor practice and opens the door for the perpetrator to keep stealing from your site or move on to another one.

While it isn’t always a sure thing, police can sometimes recover those materials from scrap yards or other scrap recycling companies. The percentage isn’t super high, but it’s better than the zero percent chance they’d have by not reporting the incident in the first place.

If the materials are valuable, consider using a GPS tracker on them. If those materials are stolen, police can follow the signal. Be aware that the police should follow the tracker – not you.

Don’t go chasing down stolen materials yourself. It’s dangerous, reckless, and best left to trained professionals.

Fewer Thefts, But There’s Still Risk

Yes, metal thefts are on the decline, but that doesn’t mean they don’t occur. From January 1, 2017, through December 31, 2018, there were more than 5,900 metal thefts. Of those, an estimated 95% were copper-related.

As we saw earlier this year, copper prices hit record highs, making materials expensive to buy and sell. Higher prices also made materials like copper wire more attractive targets for would-be thieves. As a result, a flurry of state laws has come onto the books in recent years to increase the penalties for stealing and selling metal to scrap yards.

Laws vary from state to state, so the impacts rely on where the incident happens. Although there have been laws on the books for years outlining the penalties for theft, new regulations now dictate how the scrap recycling industry accepts and processes metal materials.

For example, some states require scrap recyclers to keep detailed records of the people who come in to sell metal scrap. This often includes the person’s name, address, driver’s license number, license plate number, and what materials they were recycling. Additionally, scrap recyclers may be required to maintain those records for several years. Failure to keep records could result in fines or a misdemeanor charge.

To learn more about the scrap recycling laws in your state, click here to view the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries’ State Metals Theft Statutes.

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