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Minneapolis seeking ways to rein in scrap metal thieves

MinnPost photo by Karen Boros
Customers at K & K Metal Recycling bring their metal to the scales, present a valid government issued photo ID and wait while every item they are selling is photographed. The customers are photographed when they present their receipts for payment.

The 2011 tornado took the church’s roof and scattered the bricks. Not long after, thieves took the air conditioners.

“We didn’t know they were gone until we turned on the air conditioning,” said Pastor Tom Hartwell of Morningstar Assembly of God Church in North Minneapolis. “We were days without air conditioning at the hottest time of the year,” he added.

The congregation thought the air conditioners were protected. The two units were surrounded by a 7-foot-tall cyclone fence, but that didn’t stop the thieves.

“It was almost too much,” said Hartwell.

Congregation members had endured damage to their homes and to their church and were just beginning to see repairs restore their community when the thieves hit. 

Insurance paid to replace the Morningstar units. So, a new fence went up, reinforced this time with extra metal and padlocks. But the thieves came back.

“They cut the cable, but something spooked them,” said Hartwell.

Today he wonders how anyone could sell the air conditioners, which had serial numbers that could be traced to the church. He also wonders who would buy an air conditioner, with a cut cable, without thinking that it might be stolen.

The reason thieves target them?

Scrap metal hard to trace

“Scrap metal has no serial numbers. Scrap metal has no DNA,” said Dusty Gibbs, one of the owners of K & K Metal Recycling in Minneapolis.

By the time air conditioners arrive at a metal recycling yard, they have been taken apart and neatly sorted metal by metal. They no longer look like air conditioners. They look like a pile of parts.

“We’ve got a bit of a bit of a cottage industry that’s come up around the increasing price for scrap metal,” said City Council President Barb Johnson.

She is putting together a task force of city employees to suggest changes to ordinances that she hopes will make it more difficult to sell stolen metal.

“It’s a problem for us because we fund part of our recycling program from metals that we sell,” said Johnson. “It cuts into our solid waste budget.”

Those church air conditioners cost a total of $15,000. Prices for a home air conditioner start at about $1,500 and can easily hit $3,000 or more.

The estimated value of copper pulled from a residential air conditioner is about $20, according to police Lt. Kimberly Lund, head of Property Crimes for the 4th Precinct on the North Side. 

bales of copper wire
MinnPost photo by Karen Boros
After the metal is purchased, it is separated by type and baled for shipment.

“Our problems go up and down with the prices being paid by the scrap yards,” she said. Lund started keeping track of copper thefts in a notebook two and a half years ago because there was no separate category to record metal thefts.

As they increased, Minneapolis police established a separate code to track copper thefts.

Copper thefts now tracked

Last week, there were nine such reports in Minneapolis with six of them on the North Side.  Copper is the only metal theft recorded by category. All other stolen metals are recorded without special notation.

Current state law requires scrap metal buyers to photograph those coming to sell metal andto  keep records of sales.

If you drive into the parking lot at K & K Metal Recycling on North Second Street, your car will be photographed and your license plate recorded. And that is just the start.

When you bring your cart to the scale, you must produce a government-issued photo ID, which is then scanned. If the ID is not valid, they will not buy what you are there to sell. Each item on your cart is then photographed by metal category.

When everything has been weighed, you are given a receipt to take to the cashier. When you present the receipt, they take your picture and issue a check. They will also cash the check, but you must first sign it so they have a record that you have been paid.

customer with scale
MinnPost photo by Karen Boros
A customer’s scrap metal is weighed by staff at K & K Metal Recycling.

K & K has records of every transaction going back to 2007 when they bought the software that makes all of this possible.

K & K records all transactions

“People who are thieves will not come to our facility because of all the cameras,” said Linda Hull of K & K. The company also hires off-duty police officers, who are armed and in uniform, to patrol the company’s property.

Hull said it is easy to pull up the records of an individual’s transactions — or transactions for a specific metal group.

She recalls the search for a stolen bronze stature a few years ago. They were able to provide police with pictures of all of the bronze they had purchased since the theft and pictures of the individuals who had sold the metal.

Gibbs and his brother got into the recycling business in 1978 when they bought the largest computer ever built in the free world. It took 40 people working in Grand Forks, N.D., two years to take the computer apart and haul off 21 semi-truck loads for recycling.

“We learned a lot about the scrap industry,” said Gibbs. At that time, they concentrated on recycling computers and hauling potatoes. “We would haul a load of potatoes out and pick up computers all the way home,” said Gibbs. At that time, they were processing six or seven semi-truck loads of computers a week.

When the flood hit Grand Forks in 1997, the city had no scrap metal yard, but the Gibbs brothers had a 23-acre lot on the edge of town.

“We told them to put the steel out there,” said Gibbs, and suddenly they were in the metal recycling business.

bales of cans
MinnPost photo by Karen Boros
Bales of metal await shipping for processing. There are 2,700 aluminum cans in each bale.

In Gibbs’ view, the amount of stolen property that moves through scrap yards is “minimal,” given the huge number of transactions at city scrap and recycling businesses.

He estimates there are 800,000 total metal transactions a year in Minneapolis, compared with an estimated 360 copper theft reports in Minneapolis during that time.

“If they want to solve the problem, they have to create penalties,” said Gibbs adding “I don’t know of anybody who has ever been convicted.”

Establishing a separate crime code for copper theft is a start, but it doesn’t cover all of the other metals that recycling yards will buy.

Cars are big target, too

Air conditioners are not the only target.  Cars are also on the metal scavengers’ shopping list. In Minnesota, you can sell a car that is more than six years old without presenting a title.

“People with tow trucks brazenly steal cars out of people’s driveways,” said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, who estimates a car can bring as much as $400. “Within a matter of hours, the car can be scrap,” he said.

Choi would like to see the law changed to require a title, or a vehicle identification number, and a waiting period before a car is scrapped to allow that information to catch up with investigations of car theft.

The problem is not unique to the urban area. Choi says his rural colleagues tell him that the theft of farm implements is increasing as the price being paid for metal goes up.

The sale of metal currently is covered by the rules that apply to pawn shops, which are required to record serial numbers of merchandise and share that information with law enforcement.

Currently, the top price quoted for copper is $3.05 a pound. Brass is selling at $2.09 a pound, and aluminum siding brings in 54 cents a pound. After the tornado, there was plenty of siding for sale. Plenty of everything. 

“After the tornado, it was horrible” on the North Side, according to Lt. Lund. She said metal scrappers were following trucks from Xcel Energy and picking up dropped cable before it could be claimed by work crews.

Samuels see situation firsthand

“It’s a tough economy,” said City Council Member Don Samuels, who lives on the North Side where he sees the legitimate side of metal scrapping.

“You see men riding around with a baby stroller on the back of their bicycles picking cans and any kind of loose wire,” said Samuels.  “Then it goes downhill from there.”

Samuels was able to watch scrappers work on a refrigerator he had hauled to his curb for recycling.

“Every day somebody took another part,” he said. “In a couple of days, Freon was leaking all over the side walk and the refrigerator door was open.  Then the door was gone.”

“These guys take the stuff back to their homes to process it a little further,” said Samuels. “One of my neighbors now has a scrapping business in his back yard.”

Metal scrapping, metal recycling and metal theft will not be going away as long as the prices continue to attract customers.

Lund is telling people who have security systems to expand them to include the air conditioner sitting next to their house. She also suggests cutting down the shrubbery often planted around the units to cover the eyesore because the shrubbery also “gives cover to the bad guys.”

The problem is the bad guys look just like the good guys when they are selling a pile of metal parts. And the problem gets worse because the metal parts that are stolen look just like the metal parts that have not been stolen.

This is a problem without an easy answer.

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