Police and BT target cable thieves

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

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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