The gain-pain ratio for stealing copper is extremely lopsided.
The thief may net a few hundred dollars, while doing thousands and tens of thousands — and, in the case of an abandoned Danville factory, hundreds of thousands — of dollars of damage.
Public safety is jeopardized by phone and power outages, so much so that AT&T is offering cash rewards for information about copper thefts.
Businesses are temporarily shut down when air conditioners are vandalized. Workers making repairs are put at risk.
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Oh, and the thieves sometimes die from electrocution.
We haven't seen any statistics, but the anecdotal evidence is disturbing. Copper thefts declined in 2008 with the price of copper, but appear to be soaring again as copper prices have rebounded to above 2006 levels.
Professional offices in Lexington, rural phone lines, churches, electrical substations — all have been disabled by copper thefts in recent weeks.
The latest fatality, a 22-year-old man, was electrocuted last month, apparently while attempting to steal copper wire from an electric substation in McCreary County.
The legislature enacted a law in 2008 and another this year that were supposed to make it harder to sell stolen copper.
But without a greater emphasis on educating scrap dealers, and then holding them accountable, the illicit copper trade is probably going to boom as long as prices are high and large numbers of Kentuckians are compelled to feed their craving for drugs. A high jobless rate doesn't help, either.
Under the 2008 law, scrap dealers are supposed to keep the same kinds of registries as pawn shops, recording and maintaining for two years information identifying the sellers of metal, railroad rails and beer kegs, and making the information available to law enforcement upon request.
The law was strengthened this year to require a signed certificate of ownership from the seller of smelted, burned or melted metals.
Scrap dealers who fail to comply with the rules can be fined $100 and receive 30 days in jail.
We know law enforcement already is juggling more than it can handle, but increased attention to scrap dealers could pay off.
Some states are considering banning the sale of copper scrap by anyone other than a certified electrician or bona fide electrical company. That's something for the legislature to consider.
Scrap dealers who don't want to be viewed as fences for thieves should follow the example of Chaquita Lanham of Lanham's Scrap Metal of Richmond who has alerted police to several crimes.
Depriving copper thieves of a market is the best way to fight a crime that has many victims.