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Legislators may consider permits to buy or sell copper

By Scott Jenkins
sjenkins@salisburypost.com
Local legislators say they may explore replicating a new South Carolina law aimed at curbing the rampant theft of copper and other metals in that state.
The law, which takes effect Wednesday, will require permits for anyone buying or selling copper, catalytic converters or aluminum.
“I think we need to do something,” said N.C. Rep. Fred Steen, a Republican from Rowan County who said copper thefts in North Carolina have reached “epidemic” proportions. The legislative session has ended for this year, but Steen said he “would definitely be open to trying to do something in the short session next year.”
But the owner of a local scrap-metal business says he’s already doing everything he can to prevent stolen metal from passing through his yard, and he sees the permitting as just another way for the state to collect fees.
South Carolina law enforcement officers said last week they hope a new state law will cut down on thieves destroying air-conditioning units, farm equipment and other property to sell the inner copper parts for scrap. Most of the state’s 46 sheriffs were already issuing permits for scrap copper sales to gear up for the law.
S.C. State Sheriff’s Association director Jeff Moore said that while no law can eliminate a crime, he hoped it would cut insurance claims in half.
New rules for S.C.
Starting Wednesday, South Carolina scrap copper sellers and recyclers must have permits from their local sheriff to legally sell or buy copper, aluminum and catalytic converters. For sellers, it’s also illegal to transport the metal without the permit.
To buy, metal recyclers must make a copy of a seller’s permit. They also must record information on each sale, including the seller’s photograph and license plate number, the date and amount paid, and a description of the metal. The law also bars cash for copper as well as for catalytic converters, which are increasingly stolen for the metals inside. Payments must be by check, providing further record of the transaction.
North Carolina law already contains some of the same provisions, such as the ban on paying cash. It also requires scrap dealers to issue a receipt and have it signed by the seller, make a copy of a photo ID and, in some cases, get a fingerprint from a seller.
The South Carolina law aims to be more pre-emptive and puts the burden on sellers as well as buyers of copper and other metals.
The South Carolina permits are free for sellers, who can obtain an annual or 48-hour permit. And they’re only required of people who wouldn’t normally have metals such as scrap copper to sell. Retailers, licensed contractors and air conditioning service providers, for example, are exempt.
For buyers, such as scrap yards, the permits cost $200 and must be renewed every two years.
Penalties vary
Punishments for violating the law range from misdemeanors to felonies, depending on how many people are affected and whether the crime injures anyone. People who get a permit and then use it to sell stolen copper or other metal face a felony charge.
Scrap metal buyers could face elevating levels of misdemeanor punishment for violations.
As in South Carolina, copper theft calls have increased in frequency across North Carolina, as the metal’s rising value makes it easy money for petty thieves and drug addicts.
But investigating the crime is difficult, especially if thieves melt the metal before selling it to remove any identifiers, officers say.
“Unless it’s a specific item you won’t find anywhere else, it’s pretty tough,” Marlboro County, S.C. Lt. Steve Akers said. “Anything will help. At least this gives us a database of folks dealing with copper.”
Steen, the legislator from Rowan, said he hasn’t seen the South Carolina law but “it sounds like something we need to look at in North Carolina.”
He’s also open to making the penalties tougher in this state and agreed that it’s “very difficult to catch these folks.”
“People are getting fed up with thieves,” he said.
Steen knows first-hand. He owns Midway Florist on South Main Street in Kannapolis. He also owns a building behind the flower shop that was at one time a restaurant but is now vacant. Thieves stripped the copper from an air-conditioning unit at that building.
He’s far from the only local victim, though. Salisbury saw 373 more larcenies in the first six months of this year than in the same time frame in 2010. And police attribute most of that to copper thefts.
It seems no place is off limits if thieves believe they can make a few dollars.
In July, a Salisbury Police lieutenant hand-delivered letters to residents of the Milford Hills neighborhood warning them about thieves stripping copper tubing from residential air-conditioning units.
In August 2010, police arrested a man found on the roof of the former Circuit City on Faith Road — now PetSmart — with $10,000 worth of copper stripped from the retail store’s massive air-conditioning units.
Even elementary schools and houses of worship aren’t safe.
In late July, someone cut the copper out of three air-conditioning units at Hurley Elementary School. The stolen metal was worth about $200, while the units cost thousands of dollars to replace.
And last year, copper thieves hit St. Enoch Lutheran Church in Kannapolis twice in four months.
In April, the unit used to heat and cool the sanctuary was stripped of its copper parts. The same thing happened in August to the one used to cool the fellowship hall, while the church was using it for vacation Bible school.
“Who’s taking it to the scrap yard, and is the scrap yard assuming it’s legitimate?” Steen said. “Something’s got to raise a flag, and I don’t know if there’s anything that can raise a red flag right now at all.”
Recyclers keep watch
Douglas Holmes, part owner of Holmes Iron and Metal in East Spencer, said his employees do look for warning signs.
“If it’s comes in and it looks like it’s the same person bringing the same thing regularly, especially if it’s coils, that’s a red flag,” he said. And when that happens, the business simply doesn’t buy the metal, he said.
“If something doesn’t look right, we don’t even want it,” he said. “We have enough aggravation.”
That doesn’t mean stolen metal won’t slip through. Holmes said police are at his business frequently because of the large number of thefts, and Holmes Iron and Metal works with law enforcement to help catch metal thieves.
“I don’t know how to stop it,” Holmes said.
He said his business might start taking pictures of people who come in to sell copper, and he wants to “do whatever we can to help deter this.”
But he favors measures to prevent theft over new regulations, which he said would put more burden on legitimate business owners and could just drive thieves to other targets.
“It’s just going to create additional revenue for the state,” he said.
N.C. Rep. Harry Warren, whose district includes Salisbury, said the South Carolina law “might be a little more regulatory that I’d like to see.” However, he said, changes are needed to make it harder for thieves to sell their ill-gotten gains.
“If we have a system in place now where it’s just easy for anybody off the street to show up at a salvage yard with copper, without any explanation of where the copper came from, then we’re going to continue … to see the thefts we’ve seen occur pretty regularly,” he said.
“What I think we need to have is the accountability to who is selling it, where did you get it and how can we track that person down if we need to?” Warren said. “So yes, I would agree with that.”
With the theft of metals, especially copper, a continuing and growing problem, Steen said, it may be a matter of doing something “because of necessity and because we want to.”
“We’ve certainly got to do something,” he said. “We can’t just sit back and let it happen.”

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