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Anti-Copper Theft Rules Rarely Enforced

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) ― Copper theft is on the rise in Northern California; schools, businesses and parks have all been hit.

A CBS13 hidden camera investigation uncovered that a state law designed to catch the thieves is being broken, and nobody is enforcing it.

We took our hidden camera into four Sacramento County recycling centers.

"Went in there. All they asked was, 'That's it?'" said one of our undercover news team members.

Our team quickly found out just how easy it is to get cash for copper with no questions asked.

"They handed me cash on the spot," Peter said. "No ask for ID, no thumb print, picture was not recorded."

That breaks California law. With copper and metal thefts on the rise, the state legislature passed AB 844 in 2008, requiring all recycling centers that buy copper to check the seller's photo ID, take video or a photo of the seller and the material being sold, and also collect their thumb print.

Cash is not allowed to be given instantly. The seller must come back three days later or have a check mailed to them.

J.A. Recycling did not follow any of the rules, giving us cash for the copper on the spot. When we returned to ask why, workers started leaving.

"We buy copper, but we get ID and thumb print," one worker said.

"Yeah, we had a guy come in three weeks ago and nobody asked for ID, no one took down his information," I said.

The same scenario played out at Highlands Recycling off Elkhorn Boulevard.

"Highland Recycling, no questions asked," Peter said. "Threw the copper on a scale and had ten bucks in my hands in less than a minute."

Next door at A-1 Recycling, they did take our team member's driver's license and thumb print, but there's no evidence photos were taken of him or the material, and he was given cash instantly.

When we returned, it was hard getting answers. Both A-1 and Highlands gave us the same excuse.

"That's fine as long as it's under $20," a worker at A-1 told us.

The law allows less than $20 to be given instantly only if the primary purpose is the redemption of beverage containers such as beer cans or plastic soda bottles. We were only selling pure copper wire.

As recyclers break the law, copper thieves are cashing in.

John Cabrillo Elementary School is one of several hit by thieves this year. Eleven heating and air conditioning units were stripped of copper, causing $85,000 in damage.

"The money issue is huge, we're really working to make every penny count, and something like this is a senseless waste of money," said the school principal.

We asked: Who is responsible for making sure recycling centers follow the law? CBS13 went to the county, which grants them business licenses to operate.

"That part of the state law isn't under our direct domain to enforce," said Sacramento County business license manager Guy Fuson. "It's more of a law enforcement issue with the Sheriff."

The Sheriff's Department told us the detective who did enforce it is gone.

"Unfortunately with the budget cuts two years ago, that position was eliminated," said Sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Tim Curran.

If the Sheriff's Department doesn't have the resources to do it, who can? "It's up to the Sheriff's Department, it's up to law enforcement, and unfortunately we don't have those resources," Curran said.

That brings us to the fourth and final recycling center, Ming's.

"Ming's followed the law, they were very into the security," Peter said.

We asked Ming's to show us the security system that cost them close to $30,000 -- from the photos, to the ID scan, thumb print and cash that is only given three days later.

Kenny Luong says following the strict new law has cost him business.

"If they don't have ID we just turn them away," he said. "We had numerous customers just walking away, and said, 'Oh, we'll take it down the block.'"

Down to a recycling center that won't ask any questions and will give cash instantly, with nobody stopping them.

Sacramento County's business license manage says if anyone sees recycling centers breaking the law, he can respond to complaints. Our story is the first time anyone has brought the matter up.

The Sacramento County Sheriff's Department said it recently got a federal grant to restore 50 deputies on patrol, and that may free up some movement to help deal with copper theft.

(© MMX, CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

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