by Emerson Max
Copper theft is a billion-dollar industry in the United States, and Northwest Philadelphia has seen its fair share of criminals stealing copper downspouts from local homes.
In the past two months in Chestnut Hill, three separate incidences of residential copper theft – all of which The Chestnut Hill Local reported – were valued at more than $500. The downspout segment from copper gutters Is almost always the target for thieves.
“Copper gutters are common in this area because of the age of the homes,” Officer Bob Mahan, of the 14th Police District police explained. “This area is a target – Chestnut hill is being targeted because of the amount of copper.”
Additionally, many homeowners desire this authentic look, and choose to have copper gutters installed over other traditional metals. The problem with this is that thieves target these homes as an easy way to make a quick buck.
“They’ll drive by in a truck, walk up and rip it off, then drive off and sell it to a scrap yard later.” Mahan said.
Last October, Chestnut Hill experienced a rash of copper thefts. Between Oct. 17 and Oct. 27, Hill homeowners reported four separate thefts of downspouts with values between $400 and $1,000. And that doesn’t include the damage done to homes or the cost of replacing those gutters.
Police arrested a man for those thefts in November, effectively ending the outbreak until the recent thefts in May and June of this year.
The reason copper has been the metal of choice for crafty thieves in recent years is the price of copper. Like all metals, copper’s price fluctuates, and has been relatively high recently with a current price of $2.66 a pound, according to infomine.com.
A simple solution to this problem, for those who still wish to retain this genuine look, is to purchase traditional gutters with a faux copper finish. It is also sufficient to have a copper gutter with a normal downspout, Mahan said. Thieves almost always go for just the downspouts themselves, as they are the easiest to remove.
Installing a traditional downspout will prevent theft, while still allowing homeowners to retain the copper look they want.
But many still opt for the real deal.
Curtis Kaller, owner of C.D. Kaller, a roofing and general construction company, told the Local he will advise homeowners that copper downspouts can get stolen, but many chose to go ahead with copper despite the risks.
“If people want copper, they usually get it,” Kaller said. “We still do a fair amount of copper gutters and downspouts.”
Mahan said one strategy law enforcement employs is to work with scrap yards where the stolen metal is sold and encourage them to use stricter policies to identify the people selling metal. This ensures that there is a record of transactions, so a potential metal thief can be tracked down after he or she sells the metal to the scrap yard.
“One of the first things we do – we go to the scrap yards, and see if there are identifiers on the metal,” Mahan says.
Most of the cases in Philadelphia are small residential thefts, but there is also the occasional large-scale industrial copper theft. In June of 2014, thieves broke into a warehouse on Edmund St. in Northeast Philadelphia and stole miles of copper wiring, according to a story on 6 ABC. The copper was worth an estimated $1 million.
Another example some of our readers may remember was the theft of the Union League staircase railing. A man managed to walk off with the massive brass railing in October 2016, according to Philly.com. This set the Union League back approximately $100,000.
Yet still, the main risk to Philadelphia homeowners is that their copper downspouts represent a crime of opportunity for thieves desperate for money and unconcerned about the damage they do in the act.
Kaller told the Local that a client of his in Kensington had a strip of copper flashing under his roof and thieves stripped shingles of the roof to get the stripping.
“They did probably $20,000 in damage to get maybe $50 worth of copper,” he said.
What can homeowners do if they decide to stick with copper?
First, Mahan said homeowners should be aware of who they are hiring to install the downspouts to begin with.
“I tell owners of construction companies, ‘always know who you’re hiring,’” Mahan said.”Make sure you run a criminal check on your workers,”
Even when businesses do the proper background checks, people can slip through the cracks. In the past, Mahan said he has seen cases where a theft turns out to be a worker for the construction company that was working on the home.
“If your neighbors are getting work done, make sure they know your landscapers. Also, surveillance cameras are very helpful,” Mahan said.
For homeowners in Chestnut Hill, installing security cameras is always a helpful and accessible option. They can be installed relatively quickly and inexpensively and are a massive help to law enforcement after a crime has been committed. Many of these systems can even be monitored from your cell phone or computer.
The cameras may not prevent the theft, but it can give police a head start in catching the thief.
Emerson Max is an intern and journalism student at Temple University