Heavy meddle

Copper theft is still big business. In 2006, Orlando formed its own copper-theft task force, and in 2008 the Orlando Police Department busted a copper-theft ring run by a family that was selling stolen copper to pay the bills. The sale of stolen copper even prompted Florida to pass a law in 2008 that requires scrap-metal recyclers to keep detailed records of their transactions with customers.

But on July 26 the Orlando City Council announced that it wanted even tighter restrictions on the sale of scrap metals. It proposed an ordinance that would require recyclers to mail payments to customers trying to trade in more than $50 worth of metal at a time. Currently, customers can cash in on the spot for scrap-metals worth up to $1,000. Supporters of the ordinance say that it will take the instant gratification out of the scrap-metal business. Scrap-metal recyclers, though, say they're the ones who would be hurt by the measure.

Commissioner Robert Stuart, who supports the bill, says restrictions like the ones Orlando is proposing will curtail people 'trying to fleece these metals pretty quickly.' Despite concerns about the proposed law, he says, 'I've met with the community leaders, and we are moving forward.'

According to Orlando Police Department records there have been 549 copper thefts in the city since early 2008. Air conditioners contain copper tubing and are a common target for thieves who can earn up to a few hundred dollars by selling the innards of a single unit. Thieves also target industrial units, which are expensive to repair.

A local business manager who has had six air-conditioning units stolen from the roof of his building, estimates that it has cost him upwards of $70,000 to repair or replace units stripped by copper thieves. He requested that Orlando Weekly not use his name or the name of his business, for fear that the thieves would return before a new security system is fully installed. 'The first thing I do when I open my `car` door is I listen,' he says. 'Do I hear the hum of my AC units working up on our roof?'

Some scrap-metal recyclers say the proposed ordinance won't stop the problem. Rather, they think it will only drive people to take their business to metal recyclers outside of city limits where they'll still be able to get fast money for the goods.

'I don't see how it would have any impact on crime at all,' says Michael Leigh, co-owner of Brothers Scrap Metals in Orlando. He says the council's measure would certainly drive away legitimate customers who won't want to wait to receive their money. 'I'd lose 50 percent `of my business` the first day,' Leigh says. ''Mail' is the killer word.'

In accordance with state regulations, Leigh says he keeps records of customer and item information. Scrap-metal dealers must use video surveillance in their shops, photograph all items they purchase, thumbprint customers and record the names and addresses of all individuals who sell them scrap metal. 'There's already strict regulation that everyone complies to,' he says.

Kevlon Kirkpatrick, a crime prevention officer for the Orlando Police Department, says anyone with access to the right tools can dismantle an AC unit and remove the copper parts. He adds that copper theft isn't necessarily on the rise, but that people are just more aware of it now due to increased access to information about crime online.

Copper is a popular metal to steal because, although its price on the recycling market fluctuates, it generally has increased over the past several years. Today, it's worth roughly $3.26 per pound, according to Kenneth Dittmann, an Orlando area numismatist. Dittman says that thieves can earn anywhere from $20 to $200 from the copper found in a single air-conditioner, depending on the unit's size and age.

Dittmann, who mostly deals with coins, jewelry and antiques, says thieves are also drawn to foreclosed and abandoned homes where they can look for copper fixtures, such as drains, brass banisters and wiring. 'You can make more money walking around
getting scraps than you can working a job if you hustle,' says Dittman.

Despite Kirkpatrick's insistence that copper theft isn't increasing, Dittman says he's '100 percent' certain that the recession has attracted more people to selling scrap metal. 'Everybody is desperate now,' he says.

That includes scrap-metal dealers who worry this ordinance could put them out of business. Stuart acknowledges the concerns of scrap-metal recyclers and says the city would like to work with Orange County to come up with consistent rules for metal recycling. 'The county needs to be working in tandem with us,' he says, so that regulations don't single out city business.

At the Aug. 16 city council meeting, Stuart motioned to postpone any decisions on the ordinance until the bill can be further discussed. The council is supposed to vote on the bill on Aug. 30.

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