Copper theft is an ongoing crime that continues to be a problem for business owners and utility service providers throughout the Valley.
Fourteen of 20 such thefts this year at AT&T cellular service towers alone have been in the East Valley — eight in Tempe, three in Chandler and three in Mesa, according to Scott Huscher, a spokesman for AT&T.
And now, businesses are providing an incentive to catch the thieves who are stealing the copper for little return on their time and “investment” — and easily could die from ripping it from fixtures to sell for drugs. In many cases, copper theft causes thousands of dollars of damage as thieves get away to sell their bounty for less than $50.
AT&T officials were present in Tempe on Tuesday to announce a partnership with the East Valley Metal Theft Task force, which includes Tempe police, and let people know their company is providing up to a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrests of those responsible for ripping all that is copper from service towers.
In fact, when they arrived to make the announcement from one of their cell towers in the 1400 block of West Broadway in Tempe, representatives realized that copper ground wires and a plate again had been stolen.
“It’s a huge problem, and we’re trying to combat this by being more proactive,” said Jerry Fuentes, state president of AT&T’s Arizona and New Mexico offices. “Stealing copper from the towers is something that is very dangerous. It’s high voltage wires — and there’s signs saying that it is high voltage. We’re guessing that it is somebody who knows what they’re doing to cut the wires, because they can easily be electrocuted if they don’t.”
Although there have been no known service interruptions due to thefts, it did affect the two-way radio system of a business when another cellular provider’s wires were clipped for their copper, according to authorities.
Also recently, SRP has marked a lot of its equipment at utility boxes around the Valley and alerted scrapyards in case they see anything with that marking.
Tempe police detective Matthew DeCourval of the property crimes unit, said that copper thefts have remained steady from thieves targeting air conditioning units at sparsely-rented or occupied shopping plazas and copper thefts from utility boxes.
The thieves are foregoing high risk of danger and death by climbing over walls and busting padlocks on fences to get to the towers to steal copper ground wires that weigh very little to grounding plates that weigh five pounds or more to sell to scrapyards for about $2 a pound.
Although Sgt. Jeff Glover said that metal thefts are down 68 percent from a year ago, it’s still difficult for officers to catch those stealing it from cellular towers as they remain hidden behind walls and fences.
“We can’t be everywhere, so it is as equally important for businesses to do their part for prevention, by video surveillance and offering a reward,” Glover said. “It serves notice to the thieves, but we also need the public’s help in being aware of this crime and alerting us if anyone sees anything suspicious. We’re glad that AT&T has formed a partnership with us.”
Tempe police Chief Tom Ryff was quick to point out that thieves may receive $5 to $10 for each back flow device from utility sites and $50 to $60 for the copper in stolen air conditioning units they sell to scrapyards if they make it past the risk of electrocution.
“Stealing copper is highly dangerous,” Ryff said. “The cost of labor for a plumber or replacement materials often outweighs the value of the stolen items. The actual impact on the community and businesses is enormous.”
To report suspicious activity and prevent metal thefts, call the AT&T Asset Protection Line at 1-800-807-4205 or Tempe police at (480) 350-8311.
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