This map shows five worst addresses in Indy for catalytic converter theft. Representing on-half of one percent of all catalytic converter theft victims, these five addresses account for six percent of all catalytic converter thefts in Indy.
All of them are hotels with long-term parking for the airport. 
Next time, consider a cab.

A guest post by Rob North

On the 1st October 2013, parliament’s new Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013 became legally enforced , with local authorities gaining extra powers to enforce these new regulations. The new act involves many changes to the law in regard to the way that scrap metal dealers are policed, while making vital improvements on the trading standards of the industry. Similar to the amendments to the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 in early 2011 the new act aims to reduce the theft of metal that occurs throughout the UK. For other scrap dealers and members of the public who are not yet aware of the changes in the law, here’s a guide to the main changes that the act has enforced.

Obtaining a Licence

The new act that was proposed  in early 2012 states that all scrap dealers must contact their local authority, such as their local council, in order to apply for a licence to deal and to trade in scrap metal. All scrap dealers have had to apply for this licence as it reduces the amount of scrap dealers that are collecting scrap without permission - it also makes it easier for the council to track the amount of small scrap metal businesses.

If a dealer was previously registered under the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 or Vehicles (Crime) Act 2001 (as a motor salvage operator) it’s essential that they submit their application to continue trading in scrap metal. During the application process scrap metal dealers are given a temporary licence to operate until a decision had been made to either issue them with a new licence or reject their application.

As of the 16th of October all scrap metal dealers that have not received a temporary licence must cease site operations until the scrap metal dealer has applied for a new licence.

Cashless Payments

From the 1st October 2013, offences related to cash payments for scrap metal have been severely increased.  Local authorities will have powers to cease site operations in any scrap metal site that appears to be using cash payments. Further legal proceeding can prevent individuals from obtaining scrap metal licences.  All scrap metal must be paid for through cheque or an electronic transfer of funds. This act is focusing on the electronic form of payment – this means that payment through direct debit, credit cards, and mobile banking are encouraged, but the transfer of paper forms of payment is an offence.

This section of the act is to prevent anonymous payments from being made to scrap metal dealers; this in turn will reduce the amount of money laundering that occurs within the UK.

Not all cases are clear cut – if a scrap dealer is to buy a car, they may be able to pay cash still. If a certificate of destruction has been issued, the car is considered as scrap and cash must not be used to pay for the vehicle. In the same instance, if the car is not legally considered as scrap, and either has a valid MOT certificate or has real potential to be repaired the dealer may pay cash for the car.

Verification & Proof of Identity

If a scrap metal dealer is collecting scrap metal from a person, they must now verify the identity of the person and their address – the dealer must also keep a copy of this address and the items submitted by the person for future reference. All references or records must be kept for a minimum of three years before they can be destroyed.

Forms of identification that are accepted must include a photo ID such as a passport that was issued a minimum of 3 months before the date that the scrap metal was sold, a provisional or full drivers licence. To verify the home address of the individual that is trying to sell the scrap metal, the seller must provide  a bank or building society statement, a credit or debit card statement, a council tax demand letter or statement or a utility bill, but not a mobile telephone bill. The information on these items must match the information on the photo ID and must have been issued a minimum of 3 months before the date that the metal is received by the scrap metal dealer.

If a scrap dealer is not collecting from a person but instead from a roadside they must make note of the following features. The scrap dealer must make a note of the type or types of item that they have collected, the weight, height and condition of the item as well as and distinguishing marks that may help them identify the owner of the item(s) in the future.

If a scrap metal dealer is presented with ID that they believe to be fake or they believe that it does not belong to the person that has presented it they do not have to accept this form of identification. The scrap dealer does not have the right to seize the documentation from the individual that has presented it but they can ask for a different form of photo identification if they believe the first to be fake or they can ask a series of questions if they believe that the ID does not belong to the person that is using it.

If a scrap dealer believes the ID is not valid or belongs to a different individual they are likely to ask the following questions:

·         What is your date of birth?

·         What is your star sign?

·         Can you recite your address?

·         And lastly – how old will you be next year?

If the photo ID does not belong to the individual that is using it they may not be able to recite the date of birth, and even if they can it is unlikely that they will have memorised the star sign or home address on the photo ID.

It’s essential that scrap dealers perform these checks as if the local authority believes that they are not disciplined enough or are not complying with the law and latest acts, the scrap dealer may have their licence to operate their scrap metal site or business taken away from them. Completing additional checks as well as the checks that are required may impress the local authority and well make your business favourable in your area.

All changes that are enforced are often done so to benefit the public as well as the scrap metal businesses; in this case the changes that have been enforced will make the operation and trade of scrap metal much cleaner with less cases of fraudulent and criminal behaviour.

Author: Rob North has been a member of the scrap metal trade for more than 10 years and working in the accounts department at Tyburn Metal. When Rob isn’t pouring his enthusiasm into his business he can usually be found tinkering with his car or tending to the garden.

We’ve started some very preliminary analyses of Indianapolis metal theft data for January-October 2012, and one thing seems pretty clear: Nothing predicts victimization like victimization. We counted about 2,471 metal thefts for the 10 month time period (about 247 a month or 8 per day). Not surprisingly, some of those incidents represented repeat victims. There were about 2,307 first-time victimizations. Of those 2,307 victims, approximately 7% (164) were hit at least once more within the 10-month period (adding up to the 2,471 total incidents), which is much greater than the general population’s odds of metal theft victimization. More interesting, of the 164 victims hit a second time, just over 25% (42) were hit a third or more times within the 10-month period.

If we could successfully intervene with this very small group of 164 two-time victims and prevent the third victimization, we could arguably stop almost 2% of local metal thefts. Two percent does not sound like a lot, but considering that victims in Indianapolis reported more than $3.8 million in losses to metal theft in that 10 month period, reducing that number by 1.6% could save something like $61,000 in losses to victims, not including money saved by fewer police visits, reports, etc. That is a pretty good return on helping such a small group of only 164 victims.

This observation is not new, and plenty of victimization studies have shown that being the victim of a crime increases one’s odds of being a victim again. But it is worth reminding ourselves that the easiest place to start might also be the most effective. Knowing that two-time victims have a one in four chance of additional victimization allows us to focus very limited resources on a very small group that effectively identifies itself to law enforcement by simply calling to report a crime.

Maybe the officer taking the report could provide a property marking pen or even just a simple pamphlet informing the victims of their increased odds of further victimization and providing some practical advice on reducing the risk of that happening. The victims would likely appreciate the extra effort from law enforcement that such a practice would demonstrate, especially since reporting property crimes can often feel rather pointless, other than to help file an insurance claim. If the intervention puts a small dent in a big problem, so much the better.  

In Indianapolis, crime reports for metal theft totaled more than $675,000 in reported losses for the month of Aril 2012. In May 2012, reported losses totaled more than $700,000. That is a lot of money lost from a property crime. According to data from the National Insurance Crime Bureau, Indianapolis isn’t even among the 10 worst US cities for metal theft. Why then doesn’t the Uniform Crime Reports collect information on metal theft as a distinct category of property crime?

It would seem the dollar losses from metal thefts coupled with the wide distribution of incidents across the US would justify it. The UCR collects information on auto theft as a separate Index I property crime. UCR supplemental data for 2009 indicate that the total value of stolen cars in Indy was $30.9 million or about $2.6 million per month on average. That is substantially more than the $700,000 in metal theft losses in a month, but $24.2 million, or about 78%, worth of those stolen cars were recovered. The recovery rate for metal theft is somewhere around, let’s say 5%. I am making up that number for lack of any data, but I know it’s low. So actual losses from auto theft and metal theft are roughly equivalent.

The UCR was started in 1929 to collect information on crimes across the country. The Index I crimes represent those deemed most serious, including murder, rape, assault, robbery, burglary, larceny, and auto theft. The Anti-Arson Act of 1982, passed by Congress, added arson to the list. In this new century, is metal theft any less important than auto theft and arson in terms of property loss, sheer volume, threat to infrastructure, public danger, and other collateral costs?

Recent news stories have been reporting fewer metal thefts in the first six months of 2012 compared to the first six months of 2011 in jurisdictions both in the US and the UK. Good policing, task forces, and new laws are the explanations generally given for the decreases. Another obvious explanation, the drop in metal prices, seems to have been all but forgotten. It remains important nevertheless.

During almost the entire first six months of 2011, the price of copper remained over $4.00/lb, with a February peak at around $4.60. 2012, meanwhile, started with copper prices down around $3.50/lb for the month of January. It rose to about $3.85 in February and March. April saw a dip below $3.70, then May and June hovered around $3.40. We have seen a recent peak at just $3.52 on July 3rd. Might this significant drop in copper prices relative to 2011 explain some portion of the reported drops in metal theft across the globe? Certainly.

What is most interesting, however, is not the obvious and proven relationship between metal prices and metal theft. It is the consistent absence of metal prices from explanations for the crime drop, coupled with their consistent inclusion in explanations for the crime rise. When metal thefts go up, one news story after another repeats the same stock story of increasing Asian demand for copper leading to price increases leading to the metal theft problem. When the crime dips along with the price, however, the relevance of metal prices melts away in the face of task forces, cooperative scrap yards, and new laws.

The same thing happened in 2008, when metal prices dropped steeply after some high peaks and so did metal theft. There was a pervasive sense of self-congratulation on tackling the metal theft problem. Yet, here we are again. This is not to say new laws, policing strategies, task forces, and target hardening don’t work. But it is to say that until well-constructed evaluations are implemented that control for confounding variables like metal prices, we simply cannot say with confidence what does work.
A guest post by Randee Head
Fundamentally speaking, there are two broad categories of scrap metal thieves. The first set is comprised of structured, focused organizations with the equipment to handle planned, large, complex removal of hundreds of pounds of metals in a short span of time from hours to days.  The other is made up of common criminals and drug addicts who are looking for a few quick bucks. It is more difficult to deal with the latter group, because they fly under the radar, deal in cash, and grab the metals when the opportunity presents itself. However, the former group offers some hope that something can be done about this serious, costly crime.

It is time to take something from the playbook of law enforcement officials who use reformed computer hackers to learn what they need to know to combat that kind of criminal activity. This might be a good time to consider using the same approach. The brazenness, size and value of the crimes are increasing, and it is becoming clear there is some level of coordination that needs to be understood. The capacity for profit has attracted organized crime. This is a strong indication that the problem is only going to get worse.

If one of the organized groups could be infiltrated and captured, there are several questions that are important to ask.  Knowing the answers to these questions would give members of law enforcement a more effective way to fight this costly crime.

How is a good resource identified?  Where do you get the information, and what has to happen in order for you to consider this resource a worthwhile and relatively safe endeavor?

When you sell the metals, what do you look for in a buyer, so your anonymity will not be compromised? Do you sell to the same buyers, and what are the reasons? Are the buyers part of your network, or are they unaware your metals are stolen?

What laws, regulations or restrictions do you fear the most? Would increased paperwork, collected by the buyer, be a problem, or could it be forged? Would having to identify yourself and your source be a problem? What would be the most serious impediment to your operations as far as regulations are concerned?

What do manufacturers of products that rely on metals do that makes it easier for you to steal the metals? What are you relieved they don’t do?  What is the most powerful thing they could do to make it more difficult for you to steal metals from the products they make?

What is your profit margin? What would have to happen to make it unprofitable, and what would be the best place for law enforcement to start?

This is an international problem. China is one of the leading consumers of metals and one of the nations least likely to be interested in learning the origins of the metals they so desperately need.  At this time, it has proven next to impossible to put an appreciable dent in the problem. Abandoned structures and new construction are particularly vulnerable. Getting the attention of those involved in these types of illegal endeavors is one way law enforcement might get a handle on the problem because, as of now, there doesn’t seem to be any way of stopping metal thieves.

You can find Randee Head blogging on Salon.com as TheMagician. Her latest project involves the establishment of a charity to serve the handicapped. She enjoys shopping online and one of her favorite websites is the Polimil Factory Store found at  http://www.polimil.co.uk/.

I recently posted a video of Jennifer Pahlka’s TED presentation, “Coding for Better Government.” She discusses Code for America, a program she started to send programmers into municipal government to help tackle civic problems. For example, one guy developed an app to allow people to adopt a fire hydrant, which they would shovel snow away from in winter. This app caught on and was modified in Honolulu to allow people to adopt tsunami sirens. Apparently, people steal the batteries out of them. So now a new app encourages citizens to check on the sirens. The app has gone through other permutations as it has been adapted by different cities with different problems.

Is there potential for similar apps to tackle metal theft? Are they already out there, but I am unaware? I was asked to write a short essay on metal theft for Waste Management World, and I decided to bemoan the lack of publicly available data on metal theft in America. Even basic incidence data is hard to come by, but it can be valuable for, among many other things, helping policy makers understand the extent of the problem, which can inform resource allocation, etc. It seems an app allowing victims to report metal theft after they have reported it to the police might be helpful in generating such data.

Often these property crimes seem to happen in flashes, as a criminal organization briefly comes together to steal, say, a bunch of catalytic converters in a few days. Rarely is the public informed about such brief waves until, if at all, the information has processed through law enforcement then to the media then the consumers of those specific media. Knowing a mall parking lot has had three catalytic converters stolen in the morning could be valuable information for you when heading out to run errands in the afternoon. By the time you read about it in the newspaper, however, the information is of little use. Is there an app for that? Would it be helpful?

What about other possibilities? Would people be willing and able to “adopt” potential targets, given that so many potential targets abound? Would it make a difference? What else could an app do to combat metal theft?  

The Journal of Cleaner Production has posted online a forthcoming article "An Integrated Review of Concepts and Initiatives for Mining the Technosphere: Towards a New Taxonomy," which is actually more interesting than it sounds. The technosphere refers to “material stocks established by human agency, and which…originate from technological processes, in contrast to stocks in the lithosphere established by slow, primary geological processes.” Metals, in other words, that have already been mined and extracted from ore and now exist in one form or another above ground. The technosphere represents an increasing proportion of available metal stocks. In fact, for some metals, like iron and copper, it is estimated that “current accumulation in the technosphere is comparable to or even exceeds the remaining amount in known geological ores.”

As the mining and other industries have increased research on extracting metals from the technosphere, there has been a concomitant rise in terms to describe the practice, which the authors deem undeveloped and not terribly useful; terms like urban mining, landfill mining, waste mining, secondary mining, and mining above ground,. The authors, Nils Johansson and associates from Linkoping University, Sweden, suggest the umbrella concept Technospheric Mining to help organize future discussions of these forms of mining.

They go on to typologize metal stocks in the technosphere by source, size, and concentration. For example, metals in the technosphere are either active -in use and serving a purpose- or inactive (unwanted) stocks found in landfills, abandoned buildings, slag heaps, attics, tailing ponds, and the like. The article is interesting and worth checking out, but you will probably need to contact your local library to get access to the full text article on the journal’s website.


The article touches on metal theft very briefly, as a form of informal technosphere mining, usually of active metals. The new taxonomy, however, may serve as a useful foundation for further examinations of metal theft. For example, metal thieves tend to garner the most attention when stealing active stocks, such as copper pipes and wires, memorial plaques, and catalytic converters, but their activities are by no means limited to active stocks.

“Hibernating” inactive stocks are metals that have been taken out of use over time but have not been collected by waste management. They remain in their original location (e.g., abandoned buildings, ship graveyards, etc.) but will not be used again for the purposes for which they were designed. Though the theft of such inactive metals usually does not end up in the news or raise the ire of the public or its officials, these hibernating inactive metal stocks may actually serve as an important catalyst to the metal theft problem.

When I spoke with a former metal thief, “Chico,” a few years ago, he explained how he got into stealing metals: “I didn’t work for probably three years. I had a lot of money. Then I ran out of money. So I started scrappin’. I wasn’t stealing at first. Just go down and you can find a lot of things, you know different things. And then the others guys that was scrappin’, they were getting, you know, good stuff. And they were going to abandoned buildings, houses, whatever, and they were getting stuff out of there. They were getting big money for copper.”

The first thing Chico stole was from an abandoned ice cream factory being demolished by a legitimate crew, dismantling the building and separating metals, like stainless steel and copper, to be sold as scrap. He was walking down the street one night and a guy he knew was trying to lift a big, and stolen, copper wire over the fence, but it was too heavy. He couldn’t get it over the fence, and he asked Chico to help him.

“And that’s when I seen what it was, and when I seen what it was, I knew what it was worth. I’m looking, going, ‘Oh! All that money’s sitting there.’”

This led him to his first series of metal thefts. He hit a string of large electrical transformers outside the abandoned ice cream factory.

“They had telephone posts, two of them, on each end and a big aluminum platform with three transformers set on it. But they had them too high. Six of them. Big, big, big stuff. Big wires comin’ off of it. Big wire…I unbolted them. I had the tools, and I unbolted them. They weighed over 100 pounds apiece. Oh yeah. One wire. There was a lot of them, too.”

Some scrappers view places like abandoned factories and other sources of hibernating metal as something of a gray area. Though they generally recognize stripping these places of their metal is illegal (in fact, Chico was stealing from a place currently being demolished), they may not necessarily view it in the same vein as stealing “active metals,” such as the catalytic converter under an SUV. Indeed, just look at the number of cities with public works employees and others caught stealing city-owned scrap (i.e., inactive) metals and selling them for their personal profit. This sort of crime is easier for a would-be thief to neutralize, or rationalize. But it is a slippery slope into stealing active metals, which have far more costly consequences for the public and industries.

The sites of hibernating metals, then may provide a sort of nexus for the integration of a number of crime theories that can explain metal theft. A perfect storm for property crime. Almost by definition, the sites of hibernating metals lack capable guardianship, one of the three components necessary for a crime according to routine activities theory. The first component: a suitable target (i.e., valuable metal that scrap yards will purchase) is already present. And the third component, motivated offenders, find their way to these areas through their own routine activities.

In Chico’s case, social learning was also involved when he saw other guys stealing these inactive metals from abandoned and distressed areas, and finally when a guy he knew asked him to help lug a large copper wire over the fence. For many, there is additional social learning in other aspects of the crime, like how to strip identifying sheaths and markers off of wires, where to sell the stolen goods, etc.

Going back to Sykes and Matza’s techniques of neutralization, it is easy in the abandoned environment of inactive metals to: 1) Deny injury – who does this really hurt? 2) Deny the existence of a victim – the “rightful owner” is nowhere to be found; and 3) Deny responsibility – it is a gray area after all, how am I to know what I can legally take and what I can’t. Doubtless, the city employees across the country caught stealing metals would provide, and very much believe, these rationalizations for their crimes.

If it is true that hibernating metals provide a unique catalyst to metal theft, what are the implications? Most discussions of metal theft focus on one of two areas: 1) Scrap dealers, the only feasible market for stolen metals; and 2) Target hardening often stolen metals, such as marking catalytic converters, pipes and wires or increasing surveillance. This second focus is always aimed at active metals, because the theft of these metals is far more disruptive than inactive metals. However, if inactive metals serve as breeding grounds for metal thieves, paying more attention to the hibernating, inactive metals might be worthwhile, and it might also prove cost effective or even profitable.

In urban areas with big concentrations of hibernating metals in abandoned buildings and houses, it might prove beneficial to regulate these areas and structures to allow mining the metals within and razing the structures when necessary. Cities should identify their own inactive metal stocks and sell them so as to reduce “suitable targets” enticing would-be thieves, while making some money from what is essentially waste. If you are trying to rid yourself of pests, you can either chase down the innumerable masses of them one individual at a time, you can mark and harden every crumb they might take, or you can go about eliminating the environment in which they breed and thrive. At worst, this approach cleans up abandoned, derelict areas while recycling metals. At best, it might also reduce metal theft in the long run.

_ A guest-post by Luke Bennett, Senior Lecturer, Department of the Built Environment, Sheffield Hallam University

Metal theft fascinates me as an academic, because it raises some odd questions about how we think and act towards our built environments and, frankly, why this form of theft isn’t even more commonplace. There has been surprisingly little academic engagement with the practical and policy-based attempts to eradicate the latest upturn in metal theft. This comment piece sketches out a handful of themes that might prove fertile ground for engaging the social sciences and humanities beyond criminology.

Let me state clearly at the outset: I find metal theft to be abhorrent (as well as strangely rational if viewed from a resources perspective). I would like it to stop, and regard it as a particularly anti-social crime. Elsewhere I have tried to explain what I mean by ‘rationality’ and I will not re-run those points here (Bennett, 2008).

Metal theft and materiality

In Being and Time, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1927) provides a story to illustrate his argument that much of human existence takes place at the level of the un-noticed. He describes a workman using a hammer. He uses it every day and never thinks about his tool. He uses it with skill and produces goods with it that are noticed and appreciated, but the hammer is largely invisible to him. But the day he bangs his thumb with the hammer he is violently and painfully reminded of its existence, and of the embodied danger and power that that device, as a composite lump of metal and wood comprises. I see a parallel with metal theft here. The things that are being stolen—the infrastructure—of the built environment, are vital to our health, comfort and social functioning. Yet, we only notice them (and perhaps only fully appreciate them) when they are snatched away from us by metal thieves. The valuable contribution of copper to our transit systems is only revealed when that copper cabling is ripped out and thousands of commuters face hours of travel delay. If we listen to these effects and how people make sense of them we will see how infrastructure temporarily irrupts into consciousness. Perhaps through doing so we will reconnect to the material basis of contemporary world. We characterise pre-history by its material technology (stone, bronze and iron ages) but generally don’t follow that through into the present: the steel age. We seem to think of ourselves, and our worlds, as oddly mass-less.

There is something of a ‘material-turn’ at work in social theory at present. The domination of textual and discourse based studies is subsiding, with a renewed focus upon ‘things’ and their social and cultural lives. A good entry point to this area is Daniel Miller’s (2009) Stuff. Here and elsewhere Miller presents a theory of consumption and commodification that stresses the circulation of both ideas and physical things-in-themselves. Metal theft, as a warped subscription to the (ethically positive) notion of recycling could be profitably investigated through Miller’s lens.

Metal theft and bereavement

I first investigated metal theft here in the UK in the Spring of 2008. At that time there was no interest from the politicians and little public discourse about it. Insurers, church owners, and infrastructure owners were calling for action, but there was little acknowledgment in policy circles that the issue called for a national, strategic response (with the exception of the British Transport Police, perhaps). However, the terrain has now changed dramatically. Proposals for reform of our existing laws regulating scrap metal dealers are now being developed by the UK Government, and on a daily basis the media is permeated with outraged depictions of metal theft. This heightened level of public ‘noticing’ of metal theft is relatively new and seems to have coincided with  thefts of metal plaques from war memorials around the date of our national wartime remembrance day (11th November). Many media debates on the topic are framed by reference to the ‘desecration of war graves’ trope. This powerful cultural totem has given metal theft the ‘push’ it needed to lodge in public consciousness and become a ‘national’ rather than a ‘local’ issue.

This mix of patriotism and the protective urges of the bereaved make for a powerful counter-force, and one which seems to have an enduring resonance. In short, the metal theft debate now has something to latch on to. In a separate study of the power of the bereaved, I found grave owners to be a particularly powerful counter-force to the tightening of cemetery health and safety rules (Bennett & Gibbeson, 2010). It seems that community may have an important role to play now in countering metal theft.

Metal theft and pillage studies

Metal thieves are often likened to Vandals. This invokes the imagery of the Barbarian hordes sacking Rome and bringing on the Dark Ages. Yet the comparison is unfair to the Vandals – for the sacking of Rome (and there were various) was an orderly affair, with the Barbarian chieftains negotiating with the Pope what buildings could (or could not) be stripped of their elements.

But it would be helpful to see metal theft as part of a wider study of pillage practices, rather than regarding it as wholly without precedent or analogue. In this regard, I think there is much to be gained by looking at ways in which previous episodes of material extraction from the built environment have been organised (something now called, where done with permission, ‘urban mining’). I have in mind here tomb raiding (for treasure), grave robbing (for bodies), and wartime scrap drives.

As I wander around my home city of Sheffield, I am reminded at each house frontage of a prior wave of urban mining that took place during the Second World War. Each house I pass shows the stump remnants of the former iron fencing removed and sent for conversion into armaments (a reversal of the more commonly referenced ‘swords into ploughshares’ metaphor). This wave of part-voluntary, part-mandated surrender of a nation’s railings reminds us of the scale to which metal is embedded within our built environment, and the power of the state to requisition and extract it in extremis.

I have commented briefly elsewhere on the links to tomb raiding, so let me here focus on body snatching. The theft of cadavers from fresh graves became a pressing policy and public-outrage issue in early Victorian Britain. The growth of medical schools and the shortage of lawfully available bodies for dissection provoked a (very) black market in grave robbing by the (so called) ‘Resurrection Men,” such as the famous Burke & Hare (who took the ‘rational’ next step of not troubling to exhume bodies from graves, but adopted the more direct body-supplying method of murder). At the height of the body snatching crime wave citizens fearing for the fate of their mortal remains devised a variety of technological and locational solutions to thwart would-be grave robbers. After much parliamentary debate, the Anatomy Act 1832 increased the lawful supply of corpses for dissection and the lure of the illegal trade faded away (for a fascinating study of body snatching and the rise of the 1832 Act see Richardson [1989]). To see a human body as a pillageable commodity is an extreme (but familiar) logic that we see in metal theft, as is the public outcry now attendant to it, and the groping towards legislative and market-changing solutions.

What we see in metal theft is an inversion of normal regard of ‘things in use’. To return to our example of earlier, a hammer is normally regarded as tool (if it is thought of at all). It is a single ‘thing’ and it exists to be used on occasion as a device. It has value derived from its functional utility that is greater than its component value. Only when it falls out of use – i.e. when it becomes worn out or broken – should any attention turn to its other value, its commodity (i.e. exchange) value. Karl Marx (1867) saw the tension between use-value and exchange-value as a fundamental problem within Capitalism. In short, Capitalism’s tendency to focus upon the saleable (i.e. exchange) value potential of a commodity may lead to the under appreciation of its use-value. If we apply this to metal theft, at times of high metal prices, the hammer’s parts might become sufficiently attractive for it to be viewed as an assemblage of valuable commodities—some steel, some wood, rather than as a tool. In metal theft, we see the raw ascendancy of an exchange value mentality, and in the public backlash (and glimmer of an enhanced appreciation of use of metallic elements in infrastructure) we see (hopefully) a re-assertion of use-value.


Bennett, L. (2008) ‘Assets under attack: metal theft, the built environment and the dark side of the global recycling market’ Environmental Law & Management 20, 4: 176-186 and Bennett, L. (2008) Metal Theft: anatomy of a resource crime (unpublished – draft available at http://shura.shu.ac.uk/4125)

Bennett, L. & Gibbeson, C. (2010) ‘Perceptions of Occupiers’ Liability risk by estate managers: a case study of memorial safety in English cemeteries’, International Journal of Law in the Built Environment 2, 1: 76-93.

Marx, K. (1867; 1990) Capital: Critique of Political Economy Volume 1, Penguin, London.(See chapter one ‘commodities’).

Miller, D. (2009) Stuff, Polity, Bristol.

Richardson, R (1989) Death, Dissection and the Destitute, Penguin, London.

Luke Bennett
Senior Lecturer
Department of the Built Environment
Sheffield Hallam University
Email: l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk
Twitter: @lukebennett13
Web: http://shu.academia.edu/lukebennett

Recently, the Wall Street Journal ran a story about the theft of bronze vases from cemeteries, with the unfortunate title “Sky-High Metal Prices Lead to a Grave Situation.” This is hardly a new problem, but it was the readers’ comments that struck me.

The first comment remains the most insightful: “Bad ju-ju stealing from the dead…”

That, I can get behind. But then things took a strange turn:

“My Father survived the Battle of the Bulge, at one time being trapped behind enemy lines for days. His military grave is in Chicago and I live in Dallas. When I visited his grave one business trip, his vase had been stolen. Some sorry-a** b*st*rd stole the vase from his grave. If I had caught him in the act, at least one of us would be going to the hospital or worse.

And Obama wants to give him medical care on my tax dollar? As far as I am concerned, that might be the only time I am in agreement with Islamic law ... thieves lose a hand. Don't even try to excuse the theft with "well he's only trying to get food" or any such nonsense. Can you tell I am still quite angry over the matter?”

The next commentator followed up with:

“Sounds like these thieves have the same mentality as OWS protesters...if they can't get something with no effort they resort to stealing it.”

Someone then asked for clarification:

“I'm sorry for the loss of the vase, but I don't understand what this has to do with Obama. Can you explain?”

“Same question -- What does this have to do with OWS?”

The response:

Taking someone else's property is a sure sign of Socialism…hence the reference to Obama and OWS protesters. If they can take things from the living then what chance does a dead person have? How can you read the Journal everyday and be so ignorant?

How, indeed.

Had they done a little research, however, the commentators might have known the United Kingdom’s Socialist Party had already beat them to the punch and in fact blamed capitalism for metal theft. In a September article entitled “Metal Thefts – The Hidden Crime of Capitalism,” they argued:

“Licensing won't stop the thefts. And would a government such as Cameron's, so deeply wedded to deregulation, contemplate it? Will cash-strapped councils take on the issuing of licences, inspections etc? Or maybe a new quango? Unlikely.

This is really just one more hidden cost of 'free enterprise'. Capitalism creates 'boom and bust' - wild oscillations in prices, super-profits one minute, bankruptcy the next.

If we had an international plan of production, there would be no world markets where speculators could operate. Instead, copper-mining countries could see planned growth in the prices they earn, enabling improvements in copper miners' wages and conditions.

A state monopoly of foreign trade would ensure that no international 'black market' in copper could spring up. The scrap metal industry would be in public hands, with workers' management and control of any dodgy former owners, not least because a socialist government would want to manage all aspects of recycling for the sake of future generations.

So next time someone tells you 'socialism wouldn't work' or is 'inefficient', point out the deaths, thefts, losses, repair bills and disruption that we have to contend with under 'free enterprise'.”

But all of these folks, capitalist and socialist alike, seem prudish compared to the list of comments following a story on CBS Sacramento’s website about wire thefts shutting down street lights, which the county can’t afford to repair. Here’s a sobering sample:

“Guess who’s stealing the copper wires? The illegal Mexicans. They don’t even have street lights in the neighborhoods in Mexico where they are from, and this is one reason why, the people would just steal them. How’s that Open Border working out for you California?”

“Californians!!! Arm yourselves now!!!”

“The citizens shuld [sic] be getting angry, mad, hostile, at the left wing, Marxism loving morons in government. Deport all of the copper stealing thieves! Or better yet, foloow [sic] “G”’s recommendation mentioned above”

“G”’s recommendation was “Treat them like the Taliban: Night vision. Snipers. Problem solved.”

And finally, the coup de grace:

“It is leftist and semi-Marxist and Third World style California, so what do you expect? There is no doubt that with the massive invasion of illegal Mexicans, black and Mexican youth gangs, the welfare set, the hordes of dopers and deadbeats, the Marxist style state government, and volumes of street crime, that California is going down the toilet fast.”

I’m not sure how they would blame the huge metal theft problems in Indiana and Ohio, two decidedly un-Socialist states. Meth-heads most likely.

Blaming metal theft on the group or groups one finds most annoying is nothing new. During the last metal theft wave one hundred years ago, commentators were doing the same thing. In America at the turn of the last century, the thieves of most concern were not meth-heads, Mexicans, or socialists. They were scrap dealers and children.

In the introduction to the 1919 report for the Juvenile Protective Association of Chicago, Junk Dealing and Juvenile Delinquency, the authors explain, “In the course of its 18 years’ experience the Juvenile Protective Association of Chicago has received so many complaints concerning junk dealers whose acts contributed to the delinquency of both boys and girls, that it decided to make an inquiry into the relation of the junk business to juvenile delinquency.” The report concluded, “The retail junk business in Chicago is a most serious factor in juvenile delinquency.”

Earlier, in 1907, a San Francisco newspaper ran a story about a junk dealer who “tempted small boys to steal by agreeing to buy their plunder.” More to the point was another San Francisco paper’s 1903 article titled “Junkman an Alleged Fagin: San Francisco Man Accused of Enticing Boy’s to Theft as Did Character in Oliver Twist.” The junkman had set up the boys with a horse and carriage to facilitate transporting their stolen goods. 

And much earlier in England, Colquhoun’s 1795 tome A Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis reserved a special antipathy (and many pages to express it) toward junk dealers. In fact, the vehemence against scrap dealers was so great and wide spread in the past that historian Carl Zimring notes, “Attitudes toward scrap dealers since the nineteenth century have been frequently negative, xenophobic, and cause for the industry to respond with aggressive public relations efforts that have never eradicated the stigma.”

But it was young boysblamed for most of the actual stealing, so much so that it was illegal to buy metal from minor boys in many jurisdictions. In 1873, for example, the New York Court of Appeals heard a case in which the defendant, iron-works operator Stephen Coleman, was arrested for knowingly purchasing stolen pig-iron. A witness, who was a manufacturer, testified:

“I said to Coleman that he and I ought to know that when pig-iron was brought and sold by boys they must have stolen it in all human probability, lying around the streets; that we ought to be careful about buying of boys; he said he was in the habit of buying iron and he did not know where it came from, and did not think it his business to look around and find out where it came from… I also advised him to quit the business of buying iron of boys, and he said he would, as it was a plaguy business. I advised him as a friend and neighbor to quit it and go out of the business of buying iron of buys, and he said he would” (Stephen Coleman vs. The People of the State of New York, 1873, 55 N.Y. 81; 1873 N.Y. Lexis 138).

Jacob Riis, Jane Addams, a Chicago Gran Jury, and others all agreed that stealing metal was the gateway crime for youth headed to worse things, and that metal dealers held out the carrot to motivate these would-be thieves. Coincidentally, the Progressives’ “child-saving movement” was in full swing at the exact same time, which led to, among other things, the juvenile court system.  

Metal theft, and crime generally, has always served as an excellent Rorschach test of one’s politics, a big ink blot to which anyone can ascribe the characteristics they desire and fix the blame as they wish. For liberals crime has been the result of social economic conditions and disparity. For conservatives it has been individual moral depravity and maladjustment. Ideology is great, because it provides easy answers to complex problems. This frees up more time for blame, hostility, and self-righteous indignation, which each has its own immediate internal rewards. Sadly, this also moves us further away from the ultimate goal of creating safer communities.