Copper thievery on the rise in the area, state police say

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Regional - posted Tue., Aug. 23, 2011
Copper commands good prices at stores and scrap metal dealers. Photos by D. Coffey.
Copper commands good prices at stores and scrap metal dealers. Photos by D. Coffey.

Between July 14 and Aug. 13, Connecticut State Police from Troop D in Danielson were called to investigate five burglaries in which copper pipes were stolen from homes in the area.

According to Connecticut State Police Spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance, there has been an increase in copper thefts from abandoned houses, foreclosed houses which are unoccupied, and from houses under construction. Thieves are even targeting rolls of copper wire from construction sites and utility companies, he said.

“It is happening,” Vance said. “Scrap metal businesses are paying significant money for scrap copper pipe and wire.”

Real estate agent Patricia Malboeuf says the situation is terrible. “It's gotten to the point where when I get a listing, I'm babysitting that property,” she said. “I'm driving by. I'm going down there. I'm checking on it. I tell the neighbors to call if they see anything happening.”

Malboeuf has worked in real estate since 2003. Most of the listings she has are in Windham and New London counties. She said this is the worst string of burglaries she has ever seen. “Plainfield and Moosup have been hit hard,” she said. “Rural developments, roads and houses that are out of the way. They break a window to get in. Sometimes they even take the refrigerator.”

Unfortunately, vacant properties are seductive to thieves willing to risk arrest in order to strip a house of copper pipes and fittings. And for some, times are desperate enough that they are willing to try their hand at it.

Plumber Peter Barbeau of Barbeau's Plumbing in Danielson estimates that he gets two to three calls a week to look at homes damaged by copper-stealing thieves. Some thieves have ripped through walls to get the pipes. In one case, burglars took a water meter for its brass. “It's amazing what they do,” Barbeau said. “I've had cases where they even took the copper drain pipes out of the basement. They'll take the toilet off the floor and cut the copper drain. They cost people a lot of money.”

In one home, it looked like thieves used nippers to crimp the pipes and take them. “They aren't cutting with a hacksaw or a Sawzall, because the cuts aren't clean. They aren't using pipe cutters. I don't know how long they're in there,” he said.

What Barbeau does know is that the repair work necessary to replace stolen pipes can run into the thousands of dollars. The repair work he did on a small home in Wauregan amounted to $1,500. “That's a small one,” he said.

Thieves get nowhere near that amount of money for the copper they pilfer. While scrap metal dealers pay a good price for copper, Barbeau estimates that stripping a house of its pipes could bring in around $200. Depending on the size of the house and how the copper is separated, that estimate could go higher.

Malboeuf places some of the blame on scrap metal dealers who might be turning a blind eye to repeat copper customers. “There's got to be a paper trail of who is doing this,” she said. “New construction sites are losing brand new copper. You know brand new copper didn't come out of an old home. Where did it come from?”

“The way I see it, if you see someone coming in every day with a pile of copper tubing, a light bulb would come on,” said Barbeau.

According to Vance, scrap metal dealers have to keep records, which are accessible to law enforcement. “They need positive identification from people bringing in scrap,” he said. “It enables us to track and trace this scrapping of metal. When it's been stolen, it gives us additional leads.”

Public information has been a useful tool for copper thieves. “They watch the listings,” Malboeuf said. “They go through the newspapers. The can get online and go anywhere. They see where the foreclosed homes are.” She suggests guarding your property. Some people want signs up, but others don't. Even then, would-be thieves have access to information such as addresses and the type of homes available.

Barbeau said he uses a lot of plastic pipes in his repair jobs. “If they stole it once in copper and they see you in there putting it back, they'll be right behind you cutting it out,” he said. “They get in once, they'll get in twice.”

People need to use their eyes and ears, according to Vance. If anything appears suspicious, report it. “Don't ignore it,” Vance said. “Don't think it's okay. Let us come investigate to hopefully prevent these things from happening.”

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