Copper thieves darken streets, drain UDOT funds

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SALT LAKE CITY -- In the last two years the Utah Department of Transportation has spent nearly $450,000 in materials and man hours to replace stolen copper wire, and they are getting creative in their methods to prevent such thefts.

UDOT Spokesperson John Gleason said criminals stealing copper wire from places like lights, cameras and junction boxes is a growing problem.

“Thieves are becoming much more creative, and this is a big business, and it’s costing tax payers a lot of money,” he said.

According to UDOT’s blog, they have had to replace 110,000 feet of copper wire just in Region 2 since February of 2011, and they suspect there is an additional 75,000 feet missing they haven’t been able to repair yet. The blog post also reported that 1,500 feet of copper wire was stolen from a single location in January. Gleason said these thefts are the reason people might be driving on darkened streets.

“A lot of times if you’re driving past a light and the lights are off, it’s not the power company’s fault,” he said. “What we’re seeing is criminals actually ripping out the copper wiring that powers the light.”

Gleason said those who steal the copper wire can get around $3 per pound by selling it to metal recyclers. He said UDOT has been replacing the stolen copper with aluminum, which is less valuable, in the hope this deters thieves. He also said they have been shifting things around to make it harder on those who try to hit junction boxes for precious metals.

“We’re actually taking the junction boxes away from the lights and reburying them randomly, making it tricky for the criminals to find them,” he said.

Gleason said they are also asking the public to be watchful for potential thieves and to report any suspicious activity to UDOT by calling the Traffic Operations Center at 801-887-3700. He said sometimes the thieves may not seem out of place at first.

“A lot of times these guys will dress up as construction workers—with the hard hats, construction vests—they’re trying to blend in,” he said.

Gleason said the thefts have been fairly widespread along areas of I-15, I-80 and I-215. He said UDOT is committed to finding solutions to the problem.

“We’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars, and that all goes back to the tax payer,” Gleason said. “So, we’re all footing this bill, and this is a problem that needs to stop.”

UDOT isn’t the only organization dealing with precious metals thefts. Someone stole the catalytic converter out of a Utah Food Bank employee’s car last Friday evening around 5 p.m.  A catalytic converter is an emissions control device usually made out of precious metals, with platinum being the most commonly used.

Chief Marketing Officer Ginette Bott said the thief appeared to know what he was doing.

“The person doing this seemed to be very knowledgeable of video camera systems because he backed his pickup away from the cameras so we couldn’t see the rear license plate,” she said.

Bott said when the employee went to have the catalytic converter in her car, an older-model Toyota, replaced the employees at the repair shop said that was the fifth Toyota they had seen that week come in for the same problem.

Bott said if the thieves are caught she would like them to perform community service at the food bank.

“We hope those folks are curtailed, and we have a great opportunity here for community service, and we’d love to have those folks come back through the court systems and spend some time with us and realize how difficult it is for us to be able to provide for people in need,” she said.