Simple Steps Help Prevent Metals Theft at Recycled Materials Facilities

Mar 7, 2024, 15:11 PM
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Vicki Morgan
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Richard “Rick” Arrington, LE CPTED, CPS, NCPS II, is CEO/founder of Crime Prevention Center for Training and Services, LLC, in Hardy, Virginia. He is former law enforcement officer and a frequent ISRI speaker on preventing metals theft.

It is no secret that the theft of various metals is at a fever pitch, and the recycled materials industry is not exempt. As the price of commodities rise, so does the attractiveness of such products to thieves. The price of copper alone is up over 30 percent from approximately five years ago in the U.S. Reported metal theft case figures in England and Wales almost doubled, from 2020 to 2023. With the push for electric vehicles (EVs) and the easy availability of copper from charging cables, theft is not likely to see a decrease in the near future. Metal is a hot commodity for organized theft rings, petty thieves and legitimate businesses alike. While there is no panacea for preventing these crimes, there are simple steps those in a facility can take to discourage criminals from seeing it as a target.

While theft is tied to price increase, it is not exclusively the cause of theft. The price and availability of the target are linked but the third factor, often overlooked, is the ease by which the products can be stolen due to poor prevention practices and procedures.

Security professionals recognize that criminals will always seek to optimize their profit while minimizing their risk, just as a legitimate business might. Unfortunately, many targeted victims choose to blame others instead of trying to understand the mindset of the thief and to take steps to make themselves unattractive as targets. The owner of an automobile shop who has multiple catalytic converters stolen may blame the recycling industry as a whole for buying such products. The recycler who has metals stolen from their facility may blame the police for insufficient protection or the illegitimate recycler for less than due diligence, and the police may blame the courts for not taking the theft seriously. The truth is each has a role to play, and each must accept responsibility for their own contributions to theft.

Step one – Understand the mindset of the thief
Monetary reward is the first factor to consider when addressing the theft of metal commodities. Therefore, it stands to reason that steps should be taken to reduce the reward available to the criminal. Some means of reducing the reward available would be to limit the amount of metals we are protecting against easy theft. We can make it much less appealing to take the risk for a smaller reward.

  • Store high theft commodities at multiple locations in the yard. Place high theft items inside multiple layers of protection. (E.g., catalytic converters may be protected by a perimeter fence, inside a warehouse, in a caged container that is locked, etc.)
  • Systemically mark a sampling of items in each bin storage site in the yard with an easily identifiable marking. (Advertise the practice with signs on the yard and on the bins.)
  • Include single use disposable GPS tracking devices on shipping containers to maintain information on cargo location, and post signs on the cargo container that GPS tracking is in use. On the grounds, GPS devices may be used on shipping pallets if concern of theft of entire pallets exists. The supply chain frequently uses these devices in inventory and cargo data collection.
  • Use ScrapTheftAlert.com to notify legitimate buyers of potentially stolen items that may be presented for sale.

Step two – Make it difficult for the thief to accomplish their crime undetected
Thieves typically seek targets that they can easily steal without being observed. An article based upon 40 years of research, published in 2019, revealed that the use of cameras reduce crime.1 Crime prevention practitioners have found consistently that anything that increased the probability of the criminal in burglary and theft style attacks being detected go a long way toward the suspect changing their target to an easier one.

  • Surveillance video systems (SVS). Install surveillance video systems at facility points of entry, isolated areas and in areas where targeted commodities are stored. Camera systems should be in points of payment and sale and other points deemed to be at risk for robbery or employee misconduct. Use of cloud-based storage and remote access to view the camera or alert staff, increase the value in prevention. Audible sirens or alarms further enhance the use of cameras. The posting of signs that the premises are being recorded by video enhances the prevention value by putting users on notice of the measure.
  • Intrusion alarms. Install fence alarms. If the facility has a fence, the use of taut wire fence alarms that are resistant to vibration may be the best solution. Line-of-site sensors may provide an option if the ground is level and the area not likely to become blocked. Alarms should be selected with the environment in mind. Alarms within the facility may also be considered if storage is located within a structure. Dual activation sensors are best where one may be falsely activated due to animals, HVAC activation or heat.
    Research from University of North Carolina’s Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology revealed that most burglars considered outdoor cameras and other surveillance signs and equipment when choosing targets. Sixty percent of burglars interviewed said that if they found an alarm, they would choose another target.2
  • Improve the lighting of the yard so that it can be observed by neighbors, passing vehicles or pedestrians. If appropriate, place motion activated lights to monitor the targeted items. Make sure the light beam is facing the roadway so that a close neighbor can alert you of activity and quickly contact the police.

Step three – Make the theft difficult to successfully achieve
While the use of cameras and alarms goes a long way toward increasing the effort required for the thief to be successful, improving partnerships and addressing procedures in writing may serve as deterrents.

  • Fence the facility completely and equip it with properly closing gates. Fences increase the effort for the criminal and, when coupled with other measures, lead to the risk outweighing the reward. Fencing, like all security, is not 100% but as we create layers of security the criminal is slowed, and as they are slowed their risk of detection rises. Fencing forces effort by climbing, cutting or digging.
  • Establish a relationship with local law enforcement. Recyclers who have a relationship with law enforcement and investigators have a ready resource that is likely to quickly respond when needed. Success for the thief is dependent upon moving the stolen items undetected and quickly turning their ill-gotten gains into cash. With a partner, information can quickly go out concerning the theft as soon as it is discovered, patrols can be asked to more closely monitor the yard or certain portions of the yard (see the above mentioned use of motion activated lighting).
  • Establish a relationship with industry leaders for new insight and access to tools and guidance. ISRI serves the industry in all ways, including in collaborating with the law enforcement community, courts and lawmakers. Interested members should contact ISRI’s Director of Law Enforcement Outreach Todd Foreman (tforeman@isri.org) for more information on engaging with law enforcement and tips for securing recycled materials facilities.
  • To address cargo theft in transit, ship products within a locked container and use inventory controls. Provide an inspection of the sealed container before it departs to verify that it is secure upon arrival at location.
  • Monitor payment tickets and reconcile them through spot checks and pay outs to ensure losses are real and not internally contrived.

The recycled materials industry plays a vital role. As the world turns more to electrification, more conductive wiring will be needed and it is the recycled materials industry that will fill that need. While theft may dip when prices for the commodity decrease, it will not go away. We live in a target rich environment, and we must recognize the need to meet security needs head on. To do this each recycler must address their unique facility while working collaboratively with ISRI to address the need globally. This is done by creating layers of security to slow the intrusion down, apply proven methods that increase effort and risk of detection, while reducing the sought reward.

  1. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1745-9133.12419
  2. Research Gate. (2012). Understanding Decisions to Burglarize from the Offender’s Perspective.
  3. researchgate.net/publication/268444817_Understanding_Decisions_to_Burglarize_from_the_Offender%27s_Perspective
Richard “Rick” Arrington, LE CPTED, CPS, NCPS II, is CEO/founder of Crime Prevention Center for...
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