Law enforcement, recyclers seek stricter copper laws

rlurye@islandpacket.comOctober 27, 2013 

It might be harder than ever to make a profit off stolen copper in Beaufort County, but officers are finding where there's a will, there's a way.

The Beaufort County Sheriff's Office does not track thefts of air conditioners, which contain valuable copper wire, and thefts of high-value scrap metal have declined only slightly, despite laws that make it easier for law enforcement to track and investigate incidents, according to the sheriff's office.

Two thefts occurred earlier this month in Hardeeville, on the same block and about a week apart.

Between Oct. 4 and Oct. 18, someone shattered a glass door and took more than $2,100 worth of property, including two pieces of steel, an evaporator coil from an air-conditioning unit, copper wire and metal pipes. Sometime between Oct. 12 and Sunday, someone took a 3-ton, $6,500 air conditioner from a rental home about 500 feet down the road, leaving behind only a faint set of dolly tracks in the grass.

The General Assembly passed a law that took effect in August 2011 requiring a permit for anyone who wished to sell or transport nonferrous metal, such as copper, aluminum or a vehicle's catalytic converter. The permits are available for free from county Sheriff's Offices -- Beaufort County's had issued 4,232 as of Oct. 8, and Jasper County had issued 1,919 since 2012.

Now, the S.C. Sheriff's Association and some recyclers are calling for greater restrictions.

"There's been a significant effect statewide on thefts of these types of metals, but it has not eliminated copper theft," said Jeff Moore, president of the sheriff's association. "We are continually trying to improve the law."

Current law requires recycling centers to write checks when it buys nonferrous metals -- no cash transactions allowed.

Moore said he would like to see the state prohibit the sale of copper coils from air conditioners altogether, unless someone has a receipt for a replacement unit or operates a relevant business, such as a construction or HVAC company. The bill is active in the S.C. Senate but is not yet being studied by a subcommittee.

Moore and the S.C. Recyclers Association also hope to eliminate the ban on cash transactions, which they say does little to aid investigations. Recycling businesses gather details about customers regardless of whether they write a check, association president Barry Wolff said.

Several centers also have been burned after writing checks for what amounts to spare change -- customers have altered checks to fraudulently receive heftier payouts, Wolff said.

"It created its own little cottage industry," he said.

Though imperfect, the new rules contributed to a drop in thefts of nonferrous metals, according to the Sheriff's Association and the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office.

Between 2009 and August 2011, when the laws were passed, the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office reported 45 thefts. Between 2011 and October 2013, there were 34 thefts or incidents of illegal sale or transport, the sheriff's office said.

"I think it's discouraged a lot of people," Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said. "They've given it more thought." In 2007 alone, right before the economy fell into a recession, the number of copper thefts hit 28, soaring more than 100 percent from the previous year.

"I know the economy drives up the cost of copper and things such as that," Tanner said. "But then again, we've got people out there who commit crimes because that is their job."

Those figures do not include the dozens of air-conditioning units stolen each year because the sheriff's office cannot always determine whether the unit was taken for its copper.

However, Moore said he has noticed a drop in copper-theft insurance claims, particularly from companies that serve community centers and churches. Like Realtors, those groups do not occupy their buildings around the clock, leaving them easy targets for air-conditioner thieves, he said.

Southern Mutual Church Insurance, based in Columbia, reported claims of copper thefts from churches in the state dropped from $840,000 in 2010 to $312,455 this year through October. The reductions are promising, Wolff said, and new laws and stricter enforcement would build on that momentum.

"Prosecuting metal thieves isn't sexy," he said. "I think there's more to do."

Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye at

Related content: New scrap-metal sale permit law might dent copper thefts, August 11, 2011

Scrap metal laws changed to benefit businesses, December 17, 2012

Sheriff's Office: AC thefts heating up, May 2, 2012

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