COPPER thieves have met their match. Equipped with state-of-the-art ‘night vision', thermal imagers and with helicopter backup, the well-trained, dedicated members of Combined Private Investigations (CPI) arrest about 75 copper thieves every month in military-precise operations.
Roy Robertson, a former Lieutenant Colonel in the SAPS and principal director at CPI, a corporate investigation firm based in Midrand, Johannesburg, which specialises in the investigation of non-ferrous metal theft, says the theft of ferrous and non-ferrous metals, particularly copper, has "increased drastically in recent times".
Focusing specifically on the syndicates that target the electrical networks of most electricity supply companies and railway networks, CPI also secures and tracks high value cargo, investigates hi-jackings and the theft of non-ferrous metals. Operating mainly on intelligence, the company has a staggering success rate.
The figures speak for themselves. "In March this year, CPI arrested 79 copper cable thieves - all of them caught red-handed in the act," reveals Robertson, adding that over the past 10 years, the CPI force has recovered millions of Rands worth of copper destined for the export market. "In 2005 - our ‘best year' yet - we recovered 34 truckloads of copper each carrying in the region of 30 to 34 tons of copper. "
He estimates that copper theft - now regarded a ‘high priority crime' - costs the South African economy about R5-billion rand every year. "And it affects everyone," says Robertson. "The theft of one metre of cable from Eskom, Telkom, Transnet or a local municipality's network causes major problems for the economy - traffic comes to a standstill, trains are stopped in their tracks, communications are disrupted, entire suburbs are blacked out - sometimes for days - and the country's productivity is negatively affected. It is no wonder that the Minister of Energy would like copper theft to be classified as economic sabotage."
Robertson, who has been actively fighting copper theft since 2002, says there are many reasons for the alarming escalation of copper theft and this region's socio-economic situation is one. "There are the day-to-day ‘bread and butter' thieves who can sell a kilogram of stolen copper and receive a day's wages for very little effort , so it's an easy option for them," says Robertson, adding that a kilogram of copper will fetch about R70.
"But the syndicates are the real threat," he warns. "There are well-organised criminal syndicates operating throughout South Africa that are crippling this country's economy. These syndicates have international links and influence - and this includes disturbing relationships with scrupulous scrap metal dealers and exporters."
Robertson says that copper thieves have developed several techniques over the years and that they are becoming increasingly violent. "The fact that electrical network theft is extremely dangerous and fatalities are a regular occurrence hasn't hampered their efforts. The sad part about all this is that the syndicates are becoming more brutal. They often target the poor and desperate to entice them to carry out the dangerous work while the syndicate members only come into the picture after the fact," explains Robertson.
He says it is "amazing" to witness the ingenuity of the thieves who employ ‘Heath Robinson" types of contraptions to steal copper-bearing cable.
"Long trenches are dug in a very short time to access and steal underground cable; and simple objects, such as wooden poles, are used to ‘trip' the power so that organised gangs can steal overhead cables, causing severe damage to electrical networks. A popular modus operandi by copper thieves involves the linking of several timber ‘branderings' together and attaching a steel saw to the tip of the flimsy contraption, which is then used to cut overhead cables," explains Robertson, adding that the copper thieves then use specialised techniques to cut, roll and transport the stolen overhead cables.
"Thieves often use the local environment to assist them in their tasks: a blue gum tree plantation provides material for the ‘extended saws' as well as the makeshift ladders used to reach overhead cables. It is often easy for us to identify the particular group of thieves involved in a certain theft because of small but significant details - such as the colour of the saw blades used, the colour and type of material used to tie rolled up cable, where and how the cable is cut... even the lengths of cable cut - all serve as tell-tale identifiers," explains Robertson.
He says the South African government has instigated a number of measures to curb criminal activities in the ferrous and non-ferrous markets and clamp down on the illegal trade of scrap metal. "These measures include the recent amendments to the Second Hand Goods Act and the Export Regulations," says Robertson, adding that the amendments also take into account instances where copper cable has been burnt or altered. "The general purpose of tightening the export regulations is to retain high quality scrap metal within the South African economy and to prevent the export of stolen scrap metal. In principle, these amendments will help but the enforcement and monitoring remain challenging."
"Once the tough task of arresting a copper thief has been achieved, the often tougher task begins - and that is to ensure the thieves are convicted in a court of law," explains Robertson. " There is a widespread misconception among prosecutors and some magistrates that copper theft is merely another form of petty theft, resulting in suspended sentences, meagre admission of guilt fines or cases simply being removed from the roll, particularly when only a short length of cable has been stolen," complains Robertson. "What the justice system, however, does not realise is that smallest piece of stolen cable has terribly destructive and far-reaching consequences. The replacement cost of that small piece of cable is, in fact, extremely high especially when the financial impact of residential and business premises being without electricity for hours or days is taken into account."
Robertson says CPI has a conviction rate of over 90%. "Once the suspects have been arrested, we assist the SAPS in preparing the case for court and, where possible, we do a comprehensive case docket for the prosecution authorities, ensuring that all the witnesses are present in court and that all the legal procedures have been followed to the book," he explains.
"There are legal disposal contractors who have been appointed to buy redundant copper from municipalities and other utilities. They are there to regulate the processing of the material and to prevent it from entering the market. But there are many illegal operators who buy copper," says Robertson.
He urges electrical contractors to ensure that any redundant copper cable in their possession is sold legally.
Robertson showed Sparks Electrical News CCTV surveillance videos of scrap copper being delivered by workers driving an electrical contractor's company vehicle to an illegal metal trader operating in Boksburg. The video footage shows the vehicle entering the back of a bottle store's premises - the ‘front' for the illegal metal trader's operation - and the workers unloading copper cable.
"This video footage proves that every electrical contractor is vulnerable: employees steal cable and sell it to an illegal trader, implicating the contractor, who may find himself being arrested and having to explain about the stolen cable to the police," says Robertson.
REWARD FOR INFORMATION
"We would like to hear about any scrap metal traders and dealers who are buying stolen copper illegally and we welcome information on copper thieves or syndicates that are targeting networks," says Roberson, adding that "substantial rewards are offered for information".
He says the community can be extremely helpful by reporting any suspicious activity to companies, such as CPI, that have made it their goal to eradicate copper theft in this country.
"Legitimate scrap metal dealers can be particularly helpful in the fight against copper theft by reporting stolen material and not buying any metal they believe may have been stolen. When there is no demand, the supply will also cease."
Robertson says, "General awareness of the seriousness of copper theft would be extremely useful, particularly if the awareness is spread through the community to law enforcement and justice departments as this will lead to more severe sentences being imposed by the court, which will ultimately serve as a deterrent."
|The copper theft 24/7/365 hot-line (countrywide)
East Rand hot-line
086 011 1108