Ohio leads country in metal theft, report says

Mark Williams, The Columbus Dispatch

May 8, 2014

Ohio continues to be in a class by itself when it comes to insurance claims from metal thefts.

The state reported 4,144 claims, nearly all from copper thefts, from 2011 through 2013 from homes and businesses, according to a National Insurance Crime Bureau report released yesterday. Ohio had about a third more claims than second-place Texas and about 40 percent more than third-place California.

The state had 1,446 claims last year, about flat with 2012 and up from 1,232 in 2011.

Why Ohio has so many claims compared with the rest of the country is unclear.

"It's hard to put our arms around why Ohio's numbers are so much larger than other states," said Mary Bonelli, spokeswoman for the Ohio Insurance Institute.

Bonelli wondered whether law-enforcement agencies in Ohio do a better job of tracking such thefts.

"It is a question. I don't think there is a one- or two-sentence answer," said Frank Scafidi, a crime bureau spokesman.

Insurance claims tied to the theft of metal likely represent only a small fraction of all metal thefts, but it's hard to say how much because law-enforcement agencies typically report them under broader categories of theft, vandalism or receiving stolen property.

The U.S. Department of Energy has estimated that metal theft costs U.S. businesses $1 billion a year.

Safety officials say the theft of copper wiring has created an assortment of safety problems in some parts of the country, including the loss of electricity and the shutdown of 911 emergency phone service. In some cases, homes and buildings have blown up.

Thieves have stripped sheets of metal from rooftops, stolen decorations from cemeteries, ripped apart air conditioners for the copper coils and stripped homes of wiring and piping, then sold the pieces for scrap.

Thieves have even been electrocuted trying to steal live electrical wiring.

The number of claims from Ohio makes up 11 percent of the U.S. total over the three years. Last year's Ohio total was 13 percent of the nationwide figure. Ohio numbers have gone up over the past three years while national claims figures have gone down.

Cincinnati had the most claims over the three years with 508. Columbus was second with 494 and then Cleveland with 444 claims. The state also had 498 claims in which no city was indicated - that would include unincorporated parts of Ohio.

In response to the theft problem, state and local law-enforcement agencies have been cracking down on the sale of stolen metal.

Columbus, for example, was the first community in Ohio to require scrap yards to submit daily online information to police about metals sold and maintains a do-not-buy-from list for scrap yards and pawnshops of people convicted of theft.

"We are a leader in the state in trying to stop scrap-metal metal theft and our effort is starting to be copied not only statewide but regionally," said George Speaks, deputy director of the Columbus Department of Public Safety.

State lawmakers also have adopted legislation that creates an electronic registry to coordinate scrap-metal sales data and track the activities of sellers and individual vehicles used by those sellers.