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Spike in copper thefts spurs look at NH law
in a bin at Granite State Salvage in Hudson. When someone turns in copper for cash, the company photocopies the person's driver's license and makes copies of the invoice for the seller and the Hudson police. (JULIE HANSON)
Police from the Lakes Region to Nashua are trying to stem the theft of copper, and some say it might help them if New Hampshire adopted a law like one in Vermont.
There, scrap metal companies are required to provide authorities with driver's license information for anyone who comes in with copper to sell.
Some N.H. communities have ordinances that require sales information to be handed over to police, but there is no central clearinghouse for information on who is trading.
On July 13, Public Service of New Hampshire's substation off North Main Street in Laconia was broken into and a large amount of copper was stolen. Officials there said they have been dealing with a spike in copper thefts the past six months.
The PSNH theft followed a July 9 break at a New Hampshire Electric Cooperative substation in Meredith that left customers without power and another break at an NHEC substation in Bridgewater on June 25 that did extensive damage to voltage regulators and also left people in the dark.
NHEC is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the recent cases. New Hampshire State Police Troop F is handling the investigation.
Copper ground cables — which can be likened to bigger versions of ground wires used in household electrical circuits — have been so tempting to some thieves that they are willing to risk their life.
At the NHEC substation, the thief got lucky when he failed to cut the line. Seth Wheeler, NHEC spokesman, said there were bolt cut marks on a live cable, but the cut did not go completely through. The thief chose to cut and remove another cable, which yielded an estimated $200 in scrap copper.
“It's kind of like playing Russian roulette, but instead of having six chambers and one bullet, you have three chambers and one bullet,” he said.
Some thieves seem to know how to avoid electrocution. But PSNH and NHEC officials say they do not believe their employees would risk losing their jobs by committing a theft.
In Salem this April, a police officer arrested two Massachusetts men near a National Grid substation: Charles Rampino, 25, of Dedham and Charles Ranck, 29, of Jamaica Plain were charged in connection with copper theft. They have been indicted and face Class A misdemeanors alleging possession of wires, but a burglary charge could get each of them 3-1/2 to 7 years in prison and up to a $4,000 fine.
Police in Derry, Tilton and Newington have also been investigating recent copper thefts, particularly from utility substations but in some cases from stores. Two women were accused of stealing two coils of copper wire worth $551 from a Home Depot in Newington.
At Granite State Salvage in Hudson, where tradesmen often turn in copper for cash, a driver's license is now required and photocopied and an invoice is made in triplicate: one for the seller, one for the company and one for the Hudson police.
Hudson Detective Sgt. Jason Lucontoni said a town ordinance mandates that information about the sale of salvaged material be handed over. That information is collected each week and checked against reports of thefts in the area.
State law does not require that licenses be photocopied by salvage yards, Lucontoni said. It does, however, require pawn brokers to keep photocopies of driver's licenses.
“I would like to see a state law, absolutely. Each town is different. Some don't have any ordinances. It would make for some uniformity,” he said.
Police will also notify salvage yards of a copper theft. A website called scraptheftalert.com has been set up nationwide to relay reports of copper thefts; it is run primarily by the scrap industry.
Hudson Detective Dave Cayot is assigned to collect the copper sale data, and he works with Nashua and Manchester authorities and others in southern New Hampshire and Massachusetts. They have an informal email list used to help keep an eye on the scrap problem, but there are no northern New Hampshire addresses.
Laconia police Sgt. Gary Hubbard said the slow economy may be prompting some copper thefts, and illegal drug users might be drawn to the potential for getting some quick cash with stolen wire.
According to the London Metal Exchange, the cash price for copper last Wednesday was $4.42 a pound. On July 20, 2010, it was selling for $2.95.
NHEC spokesman Wheeler said it makes sense to require people to provide a driver's license when selling copper to a salvage business.
“I think it is worth looking into it,” Wheeler said Thursday.
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