Changes in metal recycling laws hard on thieves

Metal thieves aren’t just taking pipes, wire and air conditioning units in hopes that recyclers will give them a payday.

Authorities say they’ve seen people cut apart a cement mixer and construction equipment to sell off the parts for scrap. Folks have stolen landscape lighting fixtures for their scrap metal value and even dozens of molds used to make bra pads.

“It’s anything they think they can get a dollar for,” said Macon police Lt. David Freeland.

The law changed Sunday, making it harder for thieves to sell their stolen goods.

Among the changes, it’s now illegal for recyclers to buy burned copper, the product of stripping wires for a quick turn-around sale. Air conditioning coils can only be bought from licensed contractors or people with documents showing that the unit being sold has been replaced, Macon police investigator John Horne said.

Before Sunday, it was legal for recyclers to pay for metal in cash after a 24-hour waiting period. Now, they must pay by check and keep more detailed records.

“Metal theft is a big problem in the city of Macon,” Horne said.

Homes stay vacant longer because thieves are taking wire and pipes, making costly repairs necessary before the home can be rented or sold.

“The person stealing it may get $100 and cause $10,000 in damage,” he said.

By the end of May, Bibb County deputies had received nearly 100 reports of metal theft this year. Macon police statistics were not available Monday.

Sheriff’s Lt. George Meadows said recyclers now are required to register with their local sheriff’s office. In Bibb County, they must pay a $200 fee. Most of the county’s seven recyclers already have registered. Deputies are giving businesses until the end of the month to register before enforcement begins.

Recyclers could be charged with misdemeanors on first and second violations of the new law. A third violation is now considered a felony.

Meadows said he doesn’t anticipate problems with established recyclers. Instead it’s the “transient recyclers” that worry him, setting up on the side of the road in trucks and buying metal.

Typically the transient recyclers come into town and buy metal at a lower price than other recyclers -- sometimes buying illegal items -- and then shop around for the highest price they can get for the items they’ve purchased, he said.

And not all metal thieves look the same, Freeland said.

Some are stealing for money to buy drugs. Others don’t think they’re doing anything wrong by taking metal from abandoned properties, Freeland said.

But some are professionals.

One person recently stole a thousand pounds of copper pipe from a plumbing company. At the time, copper was selling for $3 a pound.

“In one night, he made $3,000,” he said.

Meadows said some metal thieves enlist the help of other people to sell the metal in exchange for being paid.

Anyone caught carrying stolen metal or selling it for another person also can be charged with a felony, he said.

Freeland said police are continuing to visit recyclers and checking to see if they’re following the law. Officers also are on the lookout for stolen metal while stopping vehicles with “loose loads” that could dump items onto the road, trailers without tags and vehicles with broken brake lights.

Sentences for people convicted of burglary and theft -- charges often imposed on metal thieves -- also changed Sunday.

Authorities suggest that anyone with exposed pipes or wires mark them with a pattern using spray paint so the items can be identified if they’re ever stolen. Residents also should consider building cages around air conditioning units and crawl space access points to discourage thieves, Horne said.

To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.