Cable theft is on the rise around the world. With the increasing demand for copper and steadily increasing prices over the last decade, copper is a hot commodity. The price averages $4.50 per pound in 2022, a sharp increase from 5 years ago at an average of $2.81 per pound. Copper is used extensively around the world and is easy to access, and highly visible.
Selling scrap copper pays too, and stolen copper is easily turned into cash. An exceedingly small percentage of people caught stealing cable are caught or even prosecuted. Typically, crimes related to copper theft only result in misdemeanor charges or small fines and probation instead of jail time. These criminals may lack the ability to assess risks and danger, and will steal live cables, risking electrocution. Likely, the most effective way to reduce cable theft is by deterring criminals with prevention systems.
The effects of cable theft
Copper thieves target easy-to-reach areas such as ground bars, conductors and cables. This leads to equipment damage and downtime for telecoms, utilities, rail and construction companies.
Copper recycling is a large industry in the U.S. and there is significant demand for recycled copper. Many scrap dealers pay close to market prices for pure copper and most often pay up to 85% of retail price for recycled copper wire. Additionally, copper dealers have limited incentives to question copper sellers.
Copper wire is typically stolen from substation transformers and utility line transformers. Urban areas have higher population density and are at higher risk for copper theft due to cable density and ease of access to scrappers. Areas close to scrap dealers are more likely targets as thieves often do not want to travel far to turn in lesser amounts of copper.
Deterring cable theft
Cable theft solutions range from 24/7 surveillance to simple industrial grade fasteners that make it more challenging to steal wire. Typically, cable theft prevention can be passive or active. Passive methods make stealing cable inconvenient and costly to the criminal while active methods aim to catch criminals and alert property owners and authorities.
Disguise cables and exposed copper
A passive method to reduce copper cable theft involves disguising copper cable as steel guywire. Replacing typical cables with anti-theft copper wires has been tested worldwide. Anti-theft wire may be made of many smaller tinned copper wires that are bunched together, with a ring of steel strands that surround the copper. From the exterior, the copper wire now looks like steel wire.
This type of anti-theft cable maintains flexibility and conductivity while holding up the disguise. Steel wires have little value when sold for scrap and these cables pass the "magnet test" that many thieves use to look for coated copper conductors. Copper is not magnetic so if a magnet sticks to the cable thieves will typically assume the cable is not copper. If it is discovered that there is copper inside the cable, it is difficult to separate the steel from the copper. Moreover, the effort to separate the tightly wound steel and copper wires would not be profitable to most.
Similarly, grounding busbars can be disguised as steel by coating the copper busbar with steel instead of leaving it as exposed copper. Initial installation costs may be higher due to increased item costs.
Simple security upgrades
Cable is often stolen from sites after hours when workers have already left for the day. Passive solutions include improving locks on-site so that they are virtually indestructible. This is a basic security measure that can deter criminals. Common padlocks have visible shackles, though recent developments make employing more secure padlocks with the shackle hidden within the mechanism a reality.
Burying cables underground may help in deterring criminals but also makes it more difficult for engineers and workers to access the cable when needed. Fasteners that cover coper wire can be installed in easy to access locations. Industrial grade steel cover plates coupled with U channel backing bars offer a simple prevention mechanism that secures the cable to prevent theft.
Marking property is becoming standard in many industries to help companies trace back stolen or lost equipment. Cable can be etched to help trace lost and stolen goods. As well, cables can be painted or labelled with coded particles that are inspired by the structure of human DNA. This painted-on solution is only visible under UV light and has a unique profile when examined closely. This method of tracing is almost impossible to remove and is invisible to the naked eye and small traces are enough for law enforcement to identify the original owners.
This method is relatively inexpensive, but it is unlikely tracing wires would deter thieves at the outset. Though if tracing cables become widely used, thieves might be prosecuted more consistently, thereby making the cost to benefit ratio of theft less appealing. Another issue is that many companies legitimately recycle copper and sell unusable or excess portions to scrappers to recuperate costs. So, tracing cables could be legitimately sold to the same location, making it difficult to determine which tracing cables were sold by criminals and which were sold legitimately if scrappers are not tracking inventory closely.
It is often impractical to install CCTV monitoring over entire cable networks, though different methods of actively monitoring cables are becoming known. The internet of things (IoT) has taken the global market by storm and is now applied in many sectors.
It should come as no surprise that IoT can be leveraged to monitor live wires in real-time. Sensors can be placed periodically along a wire and notify companies if theft is detected. The installed sensors would need to detect if there was a power outage at a specific location and an additional sensor would need to check for the physical presence of the cable to reduce false alarms. There are many legitimate reasons for a power outage and cable movement so a balance would need to be determined with appropriate sensitivities.
Overall, there are many challenges with this strategy before it can be implemented at scale. While there are high initial costs with installation, copper theft and copper cost are on the rise, causing many organizations to seek to mitigate theft.
A secure future for cable
Globally, copper prices remain high and so does the threat of cable theft. Telecoms, utilities, construction and railway industries are adversely affected, and more densely populated areas are vulnerable to cable theft. While cable theft prevention can come with high installation costs, they can prevent significant losses in the long run.
About the author
Jody Dascalu is a freelance writer in the technology and engineering niche. She studied in Canada and earned a Bachelor of Engineering. Jody has over five years of progressive supply chain work experience and is a business analyst. As an avid reader, she loves to research upcoming technologies and is an expert on a variety of topics.