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Dublin: 16 °C Monday 25 June, 2018
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Manhole covers and memorial plaques: what's being stolen in the recession?

And what’s being done to prevent it?

Image: Loozrboy via Creative Commons

THE THEFT OF PUBLIC art from Irish motorways and ancient relics from churches over the past year has drawn attention to the efforts criminals will go to to make money out of the scrap metal industry.

Inspector Niall Featherstone, chief crime prevention officer with the National Crime Prevention Unit, told TheJournal.ie that metal items ranging from goalposts and gates, to road signs and ESB cables have been stolen around Ireland in the past 18 months.

“Metal theft strikes at the heart of a community, at people living their ordinary lives as well as business people,” Featherstone said. “It’s a dangerous type of crime and there’s a public safety aspect of it because things like manhole covers are being taken and people are entering ESB supply stations and leaving the security gates open – a child could wander in.”

Prices for scrap metal in Ireland currently range from around €5 a kilo for copper and around €1 a kilo for lead. Some scrap metal traders will buy metal without requiring any identification from the seller or proof of ownership.

David Walsh, group CEO of security firm Netwatch, says the company has seen “all types of metal targeted by criminals including manhole covers, copper wiring, lift panels, boilers, lead roof tiles, statues, memorial plaques and even children’s garden slides.”

There have also been instances of heavy air conditioning units being stolen from business premises; much of the piping involved in the units is copper-based. In Co Laois, a plaque and sculpture commemorating the loss of children and young people in the community of Castletown was pulled from its foundations late last year and stolen.

“In the UK, metal theft is estimated to cost as much as £770 million to the economy,” Walsh of Netwatch said on Friday. “While the Irish figures have not been quantified there has unquestionably been an increase in the cost to the Irish economy over the past 18 months.”

Metal theft

The ESB has seen a “major increase” in break-ins at high-voltage substations and other ESB locations since the summer of 2009, a spokesperson for the company told TheJournal.ie, and those break-ins are predominantly linked to the theft of copper, aluminium, steel and cast iron. Copper thefts have been the most prevalent.

Thefts from ESB facilities can have serious safety implications, the spokesperson said. Intruders are putting themselves at risk of serious injury and death, while exposed cables can compromise the public’s safety, as well as that of the emergency services and ESB staff. The removal of equipment and materials can also impact on the continuity of the electricity supply.

Irish Rail said that although some copper was stolen from around Limerick Junction, generally the company has not been hit as badly as other service providers because it doesn’t have as much copper cabling as others. The rail depots also have 24-hour security and the fact that much of the machinery is track-based means it is more difficult for thieves to remove from the site.

Gardaí are working closely with ESB networks in both urban and rural areas over security and safety at ESB facilities. They are also appealing to the public to contact their local garda if they notice any unusual activity in their area.

Gardaí have also identified what they describe as an “emerging trend” in vacant properties being targeted for copper piping, lead, tanks and cabling.

Featherstone says property owners and landlords should make sure a property doesn’t look vacant from lack of lighting, for example, and that the property should be as secure as possible to prevent trespassing.

A garda information leaflet for property owners advises checking vacant properties frequently for any signs of trespassing or interference, and says that deadbolt locks should be installed on all doors and windows.

Machinery

While the Construction Industry Federation says its members haven’t been raising any issues surrounding the theft of construction machinery, the Irish Farmers Association says that its members have been reporting the theft of machinery, equipment and building materials from farms around the country.

In the past year, 5 per cent more items of farm equipment were stolen than in the previous year, according to the gardaí.

The IFA is now lobbying for the introduction of a thorough ‘track and trace’ system under which scrap metal dealers would have to check the source of the metals being traded. The group’s Environment and Rural Affairs chairman Harold Kingston says that such a scheme should involve mandatory checks by local authorities and the gardaí.

Kingston says that IFA members have been increasingly reporting robberies and thefts, with “valuable machinery disappearing from farmyards and fields all over the country”. He says that the criminals behind the thefts are clearly well-resourced because they have the capability to steal large machinery and storing them before disposing of them.

An Garda Síochána has developed an advice sheet for farmers to help them better protect their property against theft, including marking machinery with a uniquely identifiable brand in both obvious and more secret locations on the machines. The Crime Prevention Unit says that thefts from farms increase in spring and autumn, possibly due to a peak of farming activity at those times of the year.

Anyone who suspects that any of their stolen property is being offered for sale somewhere should immediately contact their local garda, Inspector Featherstone told TheJournal.ie. People should also protect their property and increase their chances of getting stolen property back by keeping note of any serial numbers, chassis numbers or registration numbers. Valuable property and equipment should also be photographed by the owner to support their ownership claims or draw attention to a theft.

Regulation

As mentioned above, some scrap metal dealers will buy metal without asking for ID from the seller, sparking calls for greater regulation in the error to clamp down on the opportunities for selling stolen property and to deter theft.

”If the scrap metal industry was regulated it would remove the incentive for criminals and would help improve the reputation of legitimate dealers,” Netwatch’s Walsh said. ”The vast majority of Irish metal dealers are law abiding. Simple regulations such as record keeping, identity checks and cashless payments would only serve to weed out the rogue operators.”

Late last year, Independent TD Mattie McGrath introduced a Bill to the Dáil requiring greater restrictions on the buying, selling and trading of precious or scrap metal. However, the Bill was defeated in March by 92 votes to 43.

A metal theft forum has been set up under the National Crime Prevention Unit. The forum is being led by gardaí and has met with stakeholders particularly affected by this type of crime, including the ESB, communications and transport companies, breweries, the farming sector and with the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government.

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter said that the forum is working on a “detailed metal theft crime prevention and reduction plan” which will also examine the regulation of the scrap metal industry. The forum is expected to release its recommended strategy before the end of the year.

“The first step is to prevent, deter and detect theft,” Inspector Featherstone said. “We’re confident that the forum has come together with a strong membership and we can really make a difference.”

The Department of Justice is also engaging in consultation with gardaí regarding the cash for gold trade to identify any gaps in the legislation for this area.

The minister recently said that tackling metal-related crime requires a “multi-agency response” and he looks forward to the outcome of the forum process and will study any recommendations it makes concerning regulation.

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