Police: Metal theft laws are working

PORTLAND — Beefed-up regulations are causing a drop in the number of people looking to sell stolen construction materials in Oregon, according to Scott Chamberlain, a metal theft detective with the Portland Police Bureau.

Tracking the rate of thefts isn't an exact science, however, Chamberlain said. Thieves may take items to a metal recycler for cash, keep them, trash them in a Dumpster or sell them online. Countless scenarios are difficult to track. But Chamberlain said that two indicators of reduced metal theft — lower rates of recovery and fewer reports of stolen items — show that new laws are making headway. But vigilance is necessary to keep this positive trend going, he said.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski signed Senate Bill 570 into law in 2009, creating a tougher environment for thieves looking to profit from scrap metal stolen from job sites. The new rules say that metal sellers cannot be paid on the spot; instead, they are paid via checks mailed at least three business days after metals are sold. The rules also require recyclers to collect and keep for one year a record of every person and company that sold metal. According to Doug Reese, an employee with metal recycler Schnitzer Steel, the rules are working.

"We used to have guys come in that obviously weren't in construction bringing all this wiring in a beat-up truck," Reese said. "The hassle factor of the new rules has basically eliminated the smaller guy coming in looking for quick cash."

Though the exact rate of theft is difficult to pin down, Portland General Electric said that metal theft at its substations and job sites has dropped 67 percent since 2007. Former Portland police officer and corporate security manager for PGE Joe Goodale attributes this to stricter laws, as well as the company's decision to upgrade chain-link fences to 9-gauge galvanized steel fences.

"For a while we had places that were being hit by thieves twice a week," Goodale said. "The fencing is a lot more expensive, but considering the potential of a thief knocking a substation off-line, it's worth it."

Contractors also can deter thieves by hiding or covering high-end materials, Chamberlain said. More importantly, contractors should photograph their equipment and record serial numbers. Without a serial number, Chamberlain said, chances are slim that a piece of stolen equipment will be recovered.

The Construction Industry Crime Prevention Program of the Pacific Northwest worked extensively with the Oregon Legislature to write the new metal theft rules, Chamberlain said. Karen Blythe, the program's executive director, has held meetings for the past two years to connect recyclers, contractors and police officers from around the state. This cross-industry communication, which led to development of an e-mail alert system for thefts, has gone a long way toward reducing crime, Chamberlain said.

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