Copper thefts become multi-million dollar crime

Burlingame, Calif.

You can see just how brazen copper thieves can be. ABC7 exclusively viewed a security video that shows thieves in a stolen truck crashing through the gates of a PG&E yard.

"We timed that and the suspects took 13 minutes total," said Bob Puts, the PG&E corporate security manager.

It took them only 13 minutes from the time they crash through the gates, loaded a 10,000 lb. spool of copper cables, to when they drive away. Their take for the night was an easy $40,000 in copper. Puts calls this urban mining.

"One of the reasons why this is such a profitable crime is because there are so many recyclers out there they can sell it to," said Put.

And where is the stolen copper going?

"It usually goes through recycling and from there it usually goes straight over to China," said Put. "What's happening is that our copper is being used to support the infrastructure of other foreign countries."

So, who are these urban miners? PG&E has actually done a profile of those arrested.

"Most of them are repeat offenders. It has already been shown that probably most of them are drug addicts, especially methamphetamine users," said Puts.

The thousands of underground vaults are a big target. The exclusive security video shows two thieves with flashlights checking out manholes. They pick one, they lift the cover, and one of them climbs down. The other acts as the lookout while his partner begins prying copper wiring from the vault's power lines. It doesn't take long the thief climbs back onto the street. They replace the manhole cover and the two leave with an expensive coil of copper. These thefts are costing PG&E and ratepayers a fortune.

"Just to put this whole thing in context, total cost of all this cooper theft over the last six years [is] more than $5.2 million," said PG&E spokesman Joe Molica.

A lot of that cost is going towards new security devices. They include swivel manhole covers.

"They lock into place and you need a special tool and they're extremely heavy. There's no way to remove them," said Molica.

The new swivel locks are already on 900 manhole covers in San Francisco, but their big hope for reducing thefts lies with an electronic device called "the bait wire."

"If you do steal it, then we can track them down and it tells us where the copper is going to," said Puts.

And that's all PG&E will say about the bait wire -- their secret new weapon in the war against urban mining.

PG&E also says bait wire is not the only new security device they're testing, but of course they're not talking about those either.

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