Police and BT target cable thieves

Police and BT target cable thieves

Summary: The Metropolitan Police and BT have launched a unit dedicated to tackling copper cable theft, after persistent disruption to communications networks

TOPICS: Security

The Metropolitan Police has launched a unit to tackle copper cable theft following a spate of robberies that have caused telecommunications and rail outages.

Stolen copper earthing strips

Police are cracking down on cable thieves. Above: stolen National Grid copper earthing strips recovered by police during Operation Ferrous in December. Photo credit: Met Police

The Waste and Metal Theft Task Force, announced by the Metropolitan Police Service on Monday, combines BT experts, Met Police officers, and members of the Bexley local authority environmental crime unit to investigate crimes that police estimate cost the UK around £700m per year. Bexley has a high number of scrap metal dealers. 

"Although the majority of scrap metal dealers are legitimate, those who are not are contributing to a thriving illegal trade which we are determined to clamp down on," said James Coomber, operational lead for the Waste and Metal Theft Task Force. "We will conduct regular operations to detect and arrest those responsible for metal theft and, by working closely with the scrap yards, hope to prevent stolen metal being recycled in the first place."

The unit became operational in December. 

The theft of a single piece of copper cable from a local telephone network can cut landlines to over 200 businesses and homes for up to three days, the Met said in a statement on Monday.

During copper cable theft, fibre-optic cable is often damaged, exacerbating communications cuts, police said. Damaged fibre-optic cable can cause significant internet disruption to businesses and local residents.

There is evidence of organised criminals moving into cable theft, with police finding specially adapted tools and vans with trapdoors to winch up manhole covers, according to the Met's statement.

Four men were arrested in Lambeth in September 2011 on suspicion of stealing cable. The gang had two fake BT trucks, a BT van and a winch.

On Wednesday, police wrapped up a crackdown on metal thieves called 'Operation Ferrous'. During the operation police in Bexley found BT cable worth £16,000, and copper earthing straps stolen from a National Grid sub-station.

"The removal of earthing straps from electricity sub-stations can cause dangerously high sudden power surges and lead electronic equipment in nearby homes to explode," the Met said. "In an extreme case in Castleford, West Yorkshire, theft from a sub-station caused an explosion which led to the sudden collapse of three nearby houses."

Two people per week are dying as they try to steal cables, the Met added.

A BT spokesman told ZDNet UK that the rise in cable crime has been "directly fuelled" by the increase in the price of metals since 2009. Cable theft from BT rose 12 percent in 2011, compared with 2010, the company said.

BT started a nationwide trial of Smartwater marking in July in an effort to stem the loss of "millions" of pounds from cable theft.

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Topic: Security

Tom Espiner

About Tom Espiner

Tom is a technology reporter for ZDNet.com. He covers the security beat, writing about everything from hacking and cybercrime to threats and mitigation. He also focuses on open source and emerging technologies, all the while trying to cut through greenwash.

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  • Our reliance on copper seems to be prolonged when in fact there is a way to reduce this heavy reliance. It is now possible to transform old aged copper cables - rail, telecom, highways and to turn these cable routes into Fibre networks. Transformation to fibre will reduce amount of unguarded copper asset, reduce attractiveness of this high value asset and help ease network disruption. A new technology that allows transformation from copper to fibre without excavation exists now and offers immense Carbon Credit value at the same time as improving communications speed. Cable core extraction is proven and would prevent existing levels of networks down time and reduce likelihood of the deaths of some of those involved in cable theft. Making cable recovery and cable theft a thing of the past why don't we reduce reliance on copper now and transform copper to fibre - the technology exists today.