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Dramatic Rise In Copper Thefts As Price Of Metal Skyrockets

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- A man loses his life in an explosion on the Eastern Shore. Police say he was probably trying to steal copper from a business.

Police in Princess Anne say high-voltage equipment burned his body beyond recognition. It happened at the industrial park there and briefly knocked out power.

Authorities say it's part of a recent wave of metal thefts. Cases like these have risen dramatically along with the price of copper.

Mike Hellgren takes an inside look at what's behind their quest for a quick buck.

People are risking their lives for copper, brazenly stealing it from electrical boxes and cell phone towers as the price has skyrocketed more than 500 percent in the last decade.

The FBI has called copper theft a threat to national security. Thefts have shut down 911 systems, disrupted aircrafts and put the power grid in peril.

Surveillance video shows how bold the thieves have become. Two men are seen ripping away thousands of dollars in gutters and downspouts from a Maryland home and taking off in just four and a half minutes.

In the past two years, authorities in Maryland have arrested more than 400 people. But many times, those behind the thefts get little more than a slap on the wrist.

"They're taking these cords right here," Mike Cooley, a dock manager and theft victim, said.

Cooley was stunned when copper thieves took power cables from dozens of boats at his dock in Bowley's Quarters that could have caused them to sink.

"Some of these boats have high-tech electronics and things like that, but they just went for the copper," he said.

"You came out and it had been cut," theft victim Charles George said.

Thieves simply walked off with two downspouts at George's home in North Baltimore.

"Somebody one night heard a noise outside," he said. "We didn't know it was happening."

He lives in the Homeland neighborhood where many of the older homes have copper gutters and thieves see them as easy targets.

"Very bold to do that," he said. "It's not like in a back alley. Somebody easily could stop a truck, yank something off, and then dash away."

George spent thousands of dollars to replace the copper, leaving him shaken and angry.

"It created a whole sense in the household of vulnerability. Here we are like sitting ducks," George said.

When copper is stolen, thieves typically take it to scrap metal dealers for quick cash. It's also where they get caught.

Hellgren: "Now this particular pile over here, how much would you estimate that's worth?"
George DiPietro, scrap metal dealer at Owl Metals: "It's around a thousand pounds. So it's about $1,400. So it adds up quick."

DiPietro has been in the scrap metal business for more than 30 years.

"Of course, there's always gonna be people coming who try to sell you something that's been stolen," he said.

"There are criminals out there who just want to take advantage of you," George said.

Because at today's prices, it's a problem that's not going away, and it's leaving victims outraged at how easily they're getting ripped off.

Under a new Maryland law, scrap dealers cannot buy certain items that are frequent targets of thieves, including catalytic converters, light poles, beer kegs and water meters.

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