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How to combat the threat of metal theft

by Andy Clutton

Metal theft is reportedly on the rise again so why and how should you advise your customers about security measures and prevention?

We use the term precious metal to describe gold, silver and platinum, plus a few rarities. Other than that, many think of metal as heavy and cheap. But, in fact, a tonne of scrap copper can get you between £6,000 to £7,000.

Metal theft is a real issue, and it’s one that’s getting worse, after a previous period of marked improvement.

Creating the Scrap Metal Dealers Act

In 2013, the government passed the Scrap Metal Dealers Act. The act established a licensing system for anyone dealing in scrap metal or motor salvage. Buyers would have to ask for photo ID, and cash transactions were banned.

At first, the new system worked extremely well. The number of metal thefts recorded by police in England and Wales fell from 62,000 to 13,000 in just four years. But, those numbers are now on the rise again. Figures remain lower than the peak – recorded by Statista as 2012/13 – though there are concerns that organised gangs are stealing more now in each case, meaning that simple incident counts may not tell the whole story.

Breaking the Scrap Metal Dealers Act

There are two key reasons why things are getting worse. The World Bank’s Metals and Minerals Price Index went up by half in 2021 (though it seems to be stabilising now). And, here’s what the CEO of the British Metals Recycling Association said when asked to name the biggest challenge his industry faced: “The lack of enforcement of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013. Put simply neither the police nor local authorities have the funding to tackle cash-paying operatives. The illegal operators know this and now openly flout the law and even advertise that they will pay cash for scrap metal.”

The association is calling for the reinstatement of the Metal Theft Taskforce – the body whose assessment led to the 2013 law.

Are your customers at risk?

Anything made of metal has a scrap value, but the favoured materials for thieves are copper, lead, aluminium, brass, and bronze. Copper is at most risk. Lower value metals like steel will be targeted if they are easy to take – there are numerous thefts of covers from drains and manholes, for example.

Here are some commonly stolen items:

  • Copper pipes
  • Wiring, power cables and transformers
  • Lead roofs
  • Catalytic converters from vehicles
  • Bronze / brass monuments and plaques
  • Manhole and drain covers
  • Metal window-frames

Vacant properties – commercial and domestic – are at the most risk, but there are also opportunistic thefts from busy places, generally during unoccupied hours. Sheds and other outbuildings are common targets.

Top tips to share with your customers

Here are some things that might help cut the risk of metal theft. Of course, not all will be relevant to every situation.

  • Move metal out of sight wherever possible
  • Make sure outbuildings have at least heavy chains / padlocks
  • Fit steel screens over windows and, if needed, security doors
  • Keep gates locked and decide if you need a plan to restrict vehicle access to the property
  • Similarly, decide whether you need a system to control foot traffic
  • Schedule regular checks of fencing etc. for damage
  • Don’t gift intruders with climbing aids such as wheelie bins by walls
  • Try to reduce hiding places too – cut back vegetation
  • Assess whether your perimeter barriers are adequate, or whether you need more serious security fencing
  • Fit sharp spinners at the top of barriers
  • Use non-drying anti-climb paint, and signpost it if you use it
  • Spray your metals with a forensic traceable liquid such as SmartWater and – again – signpost the fact that this is present
  • Install security lighting for evenings and nights
  • Ensure your alarm systems are adequate and cover relevant external areas like metal rooves
  • Consider installing CCTV

For more information about how to protect a property from metal theft click here

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