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New law to deter metal theft brings cheers, sighs

TAMPA — More than a year ago, state Rep. Baxter Troutman was faced with a $5,200 repair bill when thieves tore apart the irrigation system for his citrus farm to steal copper wiring.

Troutman soon learned that he was not alone. The theft of metals for money was such a lucrative business, cases were popping up all over the state. The Republican from Winter Haven fought back by introducing a bill that makes it harder to sell the metals. That law went into effect Wednesday, bringing great relief to industries hit hard by the thefts, but a headache to scrap metal dealers who now must adhere to a long list of requirements.

"We're excited about giving law enforcement more tools and options to hopefully bring a stop or at least put a dent in this epidemic that has spread not only in our state, but I suspect the nation as well," Troutman said.

The law calls for buyers to document much more information from sellers than before. It requires facts like full name, address, and home and work phone numbers; vehicle make, model and tag number; and height, weight, gender, eye and hair color. Also, payments above $1,000 must be by check.

"It's a nightmare," said Edward Sharpe, vice president of Industrial Metals Recycling in Tampa. "There's just a super amount of information that is required now, and it's just a slow process."

Sharpe said that though he supports the new law, the first 24 hours after it went into effect weren't fun.

He processed about 200 to 300 transactions in that 24-hour period. What used to take minutes per person is now about 10 to 15 minutes. So far, none of his customers have refused to provide the information, said Sharpe, who once had 12,000 pounds of stainless steel stolen from his business four hours after it was dropped off.

"We do not buy stolen material; nor do we encourage it," Sharpe said. "I just need to figure out how to speed up the process to get customers out quicker."

Scrap copper, often shipped to China to be recycled, sells for about $2.30 a pound. The damage that thieves do in acquiring the metal far outweighs the money they bring in.

Nationwide, the theft of metals has caused more than $1-billion in repairs and replacement for its victims, said Keyna Cory, coordinator for Floridians for Copper and Metal Theft Crime Prevention, a fraud business coalition made up of representatives from a spectrum of companies like utilities, beer distributors and construction.

Popular targets are new-home sites, air-conditioning units, beer kegs and farms. In January, thieves broke into a Seminole Heights church, broke up the air-conditioning unit and stripped the wires inside the building — all for $200 worth of copper. The damage they left behind? More than $50,000, Cory said.

Cory, who is also chief lobbyist for Associated Industries of Florida, said she sent out an e-mail to business owners statewide this year to see if they had concerns about the theft of copper.

"My computer was like a Christmas tree lit up," she said. "Everybody in the world seemed like they were getting hit."

Cory said she soon discovered that Troutman's bill was already in the works, making a lot of people happy.

"The great thing now is ... thieves are going to think twice about selling it," Cory said. "If they don't have a place to sell their goods, maybe they won't steal property."

Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813) 269-5312 or nguyen@sptimes.com.

New law to deter metal theft brings cheers, sighs 10/03/08 [Last modified: Friday, October 3, 2008 4:27pm]
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