Extra coppers to clobber copper crooks

'Stop metal thief!'

'Stop metal thief!'

The Home Office has unveiled a plan to tackle the growing problem of metal theft - which is estimated to cost the UK £360m per year.

Thieves have been known to make off with copper cabling from telephone wires and other utility cabling, causing service disruption in a variety of business sectors including telecoms and transport. A spokesman for BT told silicon.com copper theft is on the increase and is "clearly an issue for us".

According to a report in Portsmouth Today copper thieves struck last month in the Gosport area of Hampshire. While service has now been restored, a BT spokeswoman confirmed more than 1,000 homes were left without a phone connection after a gang of thieves cut and removed copper cables from street man-holes.

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Such stolen metal is sold to rogue scrap dealers who recycle and resell it back to the market. A London scrap metal dealer told silicon.com the going rate for a tonne of scrap copper is £1,450. The London Metal Exchange's official cash price for the same amount of (non-scrap) copper is currently $3,279.50.

The Home Office said a new national metal theft crime unit - which will target rogue scrap dealers who handle stolen metal - is being piloted for six weeks.

The metal theft unit will share best practice ideas with police forces throughout England and Wales. It is being run by the Association of Chief Police Officers and the British Transport Police and is jointly funded by the Home Office and the Energy Networks Association, the trade association for UK energy transmission and distribution licence holders.

A spokesman for the Home Office said: "The unit is based loosely on the successful National Mobile Phone Crime Unit and will provide expert assistance to Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships [CDRP] and police in combating metal theft and prosecuting illegal scrap metal dealers; collate and disseminate good practice to CDRPs and police forces; and identify emerging patterns and new opportunities for reducing metal theft.

"We are not revealing where the pilot is located because if we do then scrap metal dealers will simply stop operating illegally in that area."

Home Office minister Alan Campbell said the pilot will be evaluated at the end of March, with the possibility of subsequently being rolled out across the country.

Telcos and businesses seeking to protect themselves from copper thieves could consider upgrading to fibre optic lines which would be useless to scrap metal scavengers.

However BT has had bad luck when it comes to high end networking equipment too - 21CN networking cards, routers and even fibre were snatched from its Mayfair exchange last September.

A spokesman for the telco told silicon.com: "Attacks on BT's network can impact upon the safety of local communities. BT takes these matters very seriously and we fully support this campaign."