West Virginia copper theft law seems to be working—for some

A West Virginia law that makes it illegal for scrap yards and recycling centers to buy some types of scrap metal unless the seller can prove lawful possession appears to be working to the benefit of Frontier Communications (Nasdaq: FTR) and other companies with large installed bases of copper products.

BT copper cable theft

Copper theft is a major problem for carriers. Above, a BT public service announcement depicts consequences for thieves.

Frontier reported 110 copper thefts in the third quarter of 2011. That number dropped to only 30 thefts in the third quarter of this year, a company official told state legislators Monday.

"It will take longer to see if that's going to be a persistent pattern," company spokesman Bryan Stover told the Charleston Daily Mail.

State Police Capt. Bill Scott had a more positive outlook on the law that was created in response to utility company pleas to do something about the ongoing theft of copper-loaded wires. He told legislators he thinks the law seems to be working but that "gypsy" copper thieves are still ravaging the state's telephone and electrical wires, railroad equipment and even catalytic converters found in cars.

That's a problem for car dealers who find these gypsies "go anyplace there is a congregation of vehicles," said Ruth Lemmon, head of the West Virginia Auto and Truck Dealers Association.

The other problem is that thieves can circumvent the law by selling to scrappers who don't follow the law or out-of-state buyers who don't have to obey it.

"It's not your established scrap yards that are buying this stuff," said Chris Bowen, a railroad detective with CSX who equated metal thieves to fleas because "you can't get rid of them."

For Bowen, the biggest threat is "mom-and-pop backyard operations."

Copper theft rises and falls on market prices. When copper's high, so is theft.

For more:
- the Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail has this story

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