Photo by flickr user davidsonscott15/used under Creative Commons licenseBack in October, when a freak snowstorm sent tree limbs and utility lines crashing to the ground and turned roads into a slushy debris-strewn obstacle course, one Central Hudson repair crew arrived at the scene of a downed power line to find that someone had beat them to it — and risked life and limb to strip out valuable metal wire.

“That was a first, we’ve never had wire stolen during a storm before,” said Central Hudson spokesman John Maserjian. “But it’s a problem that all utilities face. It’s becoming more common.”

Metal theft is not a new phenomenon, but law enforcement officials say that a combination of historic high prices for aluminum and other common metals, an abundance of vacant homes left over from the housing crisis and persistent economic hard times have created ample motive and opportunity for scrap metal thieves in the Hudson Valley and nationwide. Detective Sgt. Abram Markiewicz of the Ulster County Sheriff’s Office said a “dramatic upturn” in scrap metal thefts had become a main topic of discussion at informal monthly gatherings of investigators from police agencies around the county.

“You can ask anybody in law enforcement,” said Markiewicz. “We’re just getting killed with the metal thefts.”

Enterprising thieves can and will steal virtually anything made of metal with the assurance that it can be turned in for quick cash at local scrapyards. Spools of wire vanish from utility company yards. Weekend residents arrive at their country homes to find the walls cut open and copper plumbing gone. Thieves have stolen siding off of abandoned houses, lawnmowers from front yards and even manhole covers from streets.

Kingston Police Detective Sgt. Brian Robertson said many scrap thefts happen at vacant houses in legal limbo following a foreclosure.

“The bank takes over, sends in a crew to clean it out, then people know its going to be vacant for a month or so,” said Robertson. “The next thing you know some guys go in the back door and take everything they can get.”

According to Markiewicz, a number of factors make metal theft an attractive option for the criminally inclined. Unlike traditional burglary loot like electronics or jewelry, most scrap metal is virtually untraceable. Without serial numbers or identifying markings, pipes, wire and other popular metal theft targets are hard to link to a specific crime. It’s also easily fenced at a scrapyard with few questions asked. And, while a hot TV set or diamond ring may sit on a pawn shop shelf long enough for cops to take notice, scrap thieves can rest assured that evidence of their crime will be melted down or crushed into an unrecognizable cube within a week or so.

“It’s not necessarily a function of how much its worth, it’s more, how easy can I grab it and how easy can I get rid of it,” said Markiewicz. “For a crackhead or a heroin addict it may only be a quick 10 or 20 bucks, but that’s enough for another hit.”

Markiewicz described the typical scrap thief as a “petty criminal” with a bit more energy and resources than a rock-bottom drug addict. A successful scrap thief typically needs access to a few tools and a vehicle. Many are well known to police and cops routinely check log-books at scrap yards looking for familiar names.

“You have a guy who just got out of prison and he starts showing up on the scrapyard lists,” said Markiewicz. “Does that mean he’s doing something wrong? Not necessarily, but we’re going to want to talk to him.”

Those scrapyard lists are logbooks kept by dealers which are supposed to record sellers’ drivers’ license information and other data on scrap transactions. By state law, the logbooks must be made available to law enforcement on request (other sections of the law require sellers to hold onto scrap for five days before processing it and to maintain scrap in different piles, each marked with a tag bearing the sellers’ information). But according to Markiewicz the logbooks often contain incomplete or vague information. Markiewicz said he has seen logbook entries identifying scrap sellers with nothing more than the notation “preferred customer.” Other times the description of items sold is too vague to be of any use to law enforcement.

“Some yards are better than others and they keep decent records,” said Markiewicz. “But some of these guys don’t make too much effort.”

Law enforcement officials have long pushed for a county law to tighten up control over junk dealers and pawnshops, but so far, county lawmakers have declined to act. Markiewicz said he would like to see a law that increased the time scrapyards must hold on to purchases and require buyers to make photocopies of sellers’ drivers’ licenses and provide better descriptions of items purchased. Finally, Markiewicz said, scrapyards should be banned from paying sellers in cash, thereby allowing police to trace checks made out for stolen metal and removing the incentive for drug addicts looking for a quick buck.