CLEARWATER — They slip behind closed businesses and onto rooftops under the cover of darkness.
They dismantle air conditioning units, seeking the copper wiring that can fetch a few dollars per pound. Sometimes they lug the entire handler away.
After a decent haul, their illicit goods might fetch $100 when sold as scrap. The cost to the business owners, though, can reach well into the thousands.
Replacing three units stolen in late August cost officials at Bay Area Endodontics on S Highland Avenue a whopping $14,000, said office manager Cheron Hall.
Staffers discovered the missing units on a Monday morning.
"We'd have given them the 50 bucks," said Hall, alluding to an estimate of how much the thief or thieves made from scrapping.
Clearwater police say they've seen metal thefts skyrocket this year, with a 480 percent increase in the number of cases from 2009 compared to just the first nine months of 2011.
In 2009, police investigated 25 cases. In 2010, there were 41 thefts reported. In the first nine months of 2011, there were 145 cases.
This past week, Clearwater police announced a new initiative, dubbed Cold Steal, to target those suspected of stealing copper wire and other metals.
Police said they look for people moving large amounts of metals. They plan to team up with other law enforcement agencies since the materials are often sold out of their jurisdiction.
Metal thefts are on the rise throughout the Tampa Bay area. The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office is on pace to record twice as many metal thefts this year compared to 2009.
Hall said she isn't particularly optimistic police will be able to track down the culprit.
She also doesn't expect the thief to come back any time soon: "The new units have been installed, and we have cages over them."
Rita Farlow can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4157.