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Thieves targeting more A/C units for valuable metal

As a patron places copper on the scale at STR Scrap Metal, Wendi Tabat, right, enters his driver’s license information into the computer and prepares to scan a copy. She does this for every scrap metal transaction at the Port Richey business to avoid buying stolen metal.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

As a patron places copper on the scale at STR Scrap Metal, Wendi Tabat, right, enters his driver’s license information into the computer and prepares to scan a copy. She does this for every scrap metal transaction at the Port Richey business to avoid buying stolen metal.

HUDSON — Tired of the hassles that come with being a landlord, Darlene Cooper is trying to sell her three-bedroom, two-bath stucco rental house in Shadow Ridge off State Road 52.

The 65-year-old retired teacher mows the grass herself. She did so one recent Saturday and noticed some damage to the wood fence, as if someone had messed with it.

Six days later, she got a call from her real estate agent: the air conditioning unit — replacement cost $3,800 — was gone.

Thefts of air conditioners, targeted for the valuable metals they contain, are not a new problem. But the frequency of late seems to be following the trend in the housing market.

When construction is up, as it was two or three years ago, theft of copper wire from construction sites spikes. When home sales sag, like now, air conditioning thefts rise because more properties are left vacant.

In 2006, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office received 343 reports of copper wire theft. A year later, as new home construction declined, the number fell to 251.

Now air conditioning thefts are on the rise, up from 194 in 2006 to a pace this year that will break 300.

"They're taking ones from residential homes that are built already," said Sheriff's Detective Michael Rosa. "The A/C thing has gone up, definitely gone up."

• • •

For one thing, the metals inside them are worth more. Copper has long been a favorite of thieves, and it's now selling for more than $3 per pound.

"It's not just copper though — it's everything," said Tom Palazzolo, co-owner of STR Scrap Metal in Port Richey. There's aluminum, of course, and now other metals like steel, which used to be worthless as scrap, are fetching a few cents per pound.

A home air conditioning unit, with all the metals cleaned and removed, is selling for about $35, on average. Large commercial air conditioners, which contain more copper, can fetch a few hundred dollars.

Palazzolo has been in the recycling business for 35 years, 25 at his current location on Ridge Road. He said business is slow overall, which he attributes to the larger economic slump.

But on a recent Wednesday, customers lined up in a steady stream, toting carts and truck beds full of various scraps — dead refrigerators, aluminum sheeting, old sinks.

"That junk that you're looking at right now," he said, "I didn't ever buy. We took it for free."

It all adds up, he said, to this: "People are scrounging more."

• • •

Detecting the criminals from the legitimate recyclers is difficult, Palazzolo and Rosa, the detective, agreed.

Most metal has no identifying characteristic — it all looks the same. Even a major appliance such as a refrigerator or air conditioner doesn't have a serial number, at least not one most people record.

Much of the crime fighting, it turns out, happens at the scrap yard — in the form of intimidation.

State law requires ID for anyone selling materials. Palazzolo goes further, keeping a photo of all customers, video surveillance of the property and date and time stamps on all transactions.

Common sense helps too. If someone rides up on a bicycle with a new spool of copper wire, Palazzolo won't buy.

But most people, he said, come in a truck and have gone to the trouble of dismantling whatever they have.

Law enforcement officers frequently stop by STR asking Palazzolo for his records, he said.

"They ask me for information. I give it to them," he said. "We don't want to buy anything that's stolen."

• • •

Home security companies have seen their side of the trend too. Customers, especially commercial property owners, are asking to have their alarms wired to the air conditioner.

Rob Keefe, vice president of EMG Alarms Specialist Corp. based in Sarasota, said the requests started in earnest in the last year.

An A/C unit can have a pressure switch installed on the Freon line, and EMG will tie it into a 24-hour circuit on the alarm.

"If the pressure goes down on the line when they (thieves) cut it, it then triggers the alarm," Keefe said. "It's really simple, actually."

Cooper, the homeowner in Shadow Ridge, called her stolen A/C unit "another headache."

But she's holding off on doing anything about it.

"The police … told me don't replace it until I get somebody in the house," she said. "So I'm not going to."

Molly Moorhead can be reached at moorhead@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6245.

$3 Minimum price, per pound, that copper is being sold for.

343 Number of copper wire thefts reported to the Pasco County Sheriff's Office in 2006.

251 Number of copper wire thefts reported in Pasco County in 2007.

>>Fast facts

What you can do

A running air conditioner connected to a live power source cannot be stolen without electrocuting the thief. But the best thieves know how to disconnect the power source, particularly if the box is also outside. The most vulnerable properties, of course, are vacant ones.

All properties owners can take precautions, such as having their home alarm rigged to cover the outside air conditioner. You can also put some type of identifying mark on your major appliances, although sheriff's Detective Michael Rosa cautions against taking sharp tools to things like air conditioning compressors.

Thieves targeting more A/C units for valuable metal 08/02/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 4, 2008 4:33pm]
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