Ohio No. 1 in scrap metal theft insurance claims

Ohio leads nation in metal theft

For the third straight year, Ohio has the dubious distinction of leading the nation in insurance claims from metal thefts, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

The state reported 4,144 claims, nearly all from copper thefts, from 2011 through 2013 from homes and businesses, according to the agency’s report released last week. Ohio had about a third more claims than second-place Texas and about 40 percent more than third-place California.

Ohio numbers have gone up during the past three years, while national claims figures have gone down. Thieves have stripped sheets of metal from rooftops, stolen decorations from cemeteries, ripped apart air conditioners for the copper coils and stripped homes of wiring and piping, then sold the pieces for scrap.

“It’s hard to put our arms around why Ohio’s numbers are so much larger than other states,” said Mary Bonelli, spokeswoman for the Ohio Insurance Institute.

Bonelli wondered whether law-enforcement agencies in Ohio do a better job of tracking such thefts.

“It is a question. I don’t think there is a one- or two-sentence answer,” said Frank Scafidi, a crime bureau spokesman.

Ohio has started the process of testing a database of scrap metal sales as the next step in an ongoing battle against metal thefts.

But as that process begins, the scrap metal industry has expressed disappointment that the Ohio Department of Public Safety has not progressed faster in rolling out the database for widespread use. It had hoped dealers throughout the state would be able to input sales information that law enforcement could access for use in investigating possible thefts, fraud or other metal crimes.

The department of public safety says it is on track to reach that level by this summer after testing the database with selected dealers. Regardless of the timeline, both sides agree metal thefts continues to be a significant problem in Ohio and the law that created three new elements — the sales database, a registry of scrap metal dealers and a “Do Not Buy” list of possibly fraudulent sellers — is an important step toward universal guidelines.

“We want a workable system that everyone treats the same,” said J. Jeffrey McNealey, a Columbus attorney who represents the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. in Ohio.

An Ohio law signed in 2012 started the new process by requiring scrap metal dealers to register with the state, which was expected to lay the foundation for a universal reporting system. It also tasked the department of public safety with creating and maintaining a database for reporting sales — including information on the seller and the items purchased by the yards — and a “Do Not Buy” list accessible by all scrap yards.

The intent is stopping the anonymity that sellers formerly experienced in many of their sales.

The U.S. Department of Energy has estimated that metal theft costs U.S. businesses $1 billion a year.

The Fitton Center for Creative Arts in Hamilton not only needed to replace an $80,000 chiller ruined by copper theft in 2012, but also invested $15,000 in a 10-foot-tall fence to prevent future access, according to Rick H. Jones, executive director for the center.

“It’s a sad situation,” Jones said. “I don’t think it’s going to slow down until people protect their units that have the copper.”

Middletown Detective Tim Meehan said about twice a week he checks a state database that tracks who sells scrap metal to recycling centers in Ohio and surrounding states. He said the database has helped him solve about 10 cases.

Cohen Brothers Inc. operates more than 20 recycling locations in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee, including locations in Middletown and Hamilton.

Neil Cohen, the company’s treasurer, says they obey all laws and works diligently with police if they suspect someone is trying to sell them stolen scrap metal.

“Our people see enough scrap and are trained enough to know what to look for,” Cohen said. “We do the best we can to notice those kinds of things and get law enforcement involved. Inside our properties, we have internal controls and third-party security that helps advise us on anything we need to do to help investigate potential scrap theft.”

“It’s got a lot better,” Hamilton Police Det. Rich Burkhardt said of scrap metal thefts. He credits tougher laws and a better working relationship with major scrap dealers for a decline in thefts.

“They (scrap metal dealers) take your ID, they take a picture of the driver’s license plate, and they have a no-buy list,” Burkhardt said. “So they started working better with us.”

Burkhardt believes thieves are stealing scrap metal so they can have money to buy heroin and other drugs. He also blames the high unemployment rate.

“They don’t have a job, they don’t have money, and it’s easy; you can go in and get out,” he said.

He has some tips for residents so they won’t be a victim.

“Watch your neighbors, ask them to watch your place. Don’t leave your garage door open, and if you have tools write down the serial numbers. Make a report right away before it gets scrapped,” Burkhardt said.

Staff Writer Kyle Nagel and The Columbus Dispatch contributed to this story.

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