TAMPA — For metal thieves in Florida, targets are everywhere.
They've hit homes, businesses, churches, construction sites, utilities, telephone companies and storage lots. They've ripped out copper wiring, dismantled air conditioning units and illegally scrapped manhole covers, stop signs, interstate guardrails, park benches, railroad ties and chain-link fences.
Now authorities hope they will get a new weapon in the battle against the surging thefts.
Two bills awaiting Gov. Rick Scott's signature would make it harder for people to sell stolen metals to recyclers, stopping a crime that can mean huge losses for property owners, advocates say.
"It's just hurt too many people — both in the pocketbook and with their loved ones," said Keyna Cory, a coordinator for Floridians for Copper and Metal Crime Prevention, which supported the legislation. "We think this is what we need to stop this crime."
The primary bill (HB 885/SB 540) creates statewide standards and a database for recording information about metal sales. It also increases penalties for metal theft and establishes a list of metals that can't be resold without proof of ownership.
"Why steal it if I can't sell it someplace?" asked Cory.
The legislation would require that metal recyclers take down sellers' information as well as information about the metal, such as a serial number. That information would be entered into databases shared by law enforcement.
It would create a list of 20 items, including manhole covers, funeral markers, storm grates and beer kegs, that can't be scrapped unless the seller can prove ownership or authority to sell the property. Payment for those items must come in check form — no cash.
The law also would make these requirements uniform across the state, instead of the existing patchwork of regulation at the county level, Cory said.
The penalty for metal recyclers who fail to keep proper paperwork would increase to a third-degree felony from a misdemeanor. That would be upped to a second-degree felony for third or subsequent violations.
People who steal metal from electrical substations would face a first-degree felony.
"We came together collectively to work on something to help solve the problem," said Rose Mock, president of Allied Scrap Processors in Lakeland and President of the Florida Recyclers Association.
Though not a perfect solution, she said, it's a step in the right direction. She also said that Florida recyclers took a proactive step to combating metal theft.
"People think that nobody's doing anything, but we are," she said. "We all are."
The changes would help local authorities regulate the industry better, said Hillsborough County Sheriff's Detective Dillon Corr, who investigates scrap metal cases.
"We're going to take away the outlet and, hopefully, that's going to reduce the metal theft," he said.
Metal theft has grown steadily in the past 10 years, spurred by rising prices and increasing demand from China and India, experts say. But the crime has increased dramatically with the economic downturn.
"It's basically a crime of last resort," Corr said.
He said scrapping offers a huge reward for little risk, attracting everyone from drug addicts to out-of-work electricians.
Metal thieves can cause far more damage getting the metal than it is worth at the scrap yard. The thefts can also have serious unintended consequences.
In September, a Miami pedestrian was struck and killed on a stretch of road left dark after metal thieves stripped copper from the streetlights, according to Floridians for Copper and Metal Crime Prevention Coalition.
The Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative, serving west-central Florida, suffered more than $300,000 in metal theft-related damage in 2011, the coalition reported.
Although not all law enforcement agencies track metal-related thefts, some have reported large jumps. Clearwater, for example, saw metal thefts jump from 59 in 2010 to 169 in 2011.
It's hard to know exactly how big of a problem metal thefts are across the state. Or how much they do in damage.
"I think that we would be closer to billions," said Cory.