Summertime in the economically distressed has seen an increase in “crimes of opportunity” as thieves have exploited opportunities to pilfer portable goods that can be quickly re-sold:
Bristol,Tenn., police have seen an increase in thefts of lawn mowers, weed trimmers, chainsaws and hedge trimmers, Capt. Charlie Thomas said. The equipment is often stored in an outdoor shed, and Thomas said the thefts have occurred all over the city, often in the early morning hours.
In many of the same neighborhoods, cars have been broken into and GPS units and iPods stolen, he said. Several of the sheds have been locked, he said.
“They’re cutting the lock off or prying [the hinges] off and going on in,” he said. “Most of these people are taking push mowers or chain saws – stuff that’s easy to grab and run.”
In one case, two full five-gallon cans of gas were stolen, too, he said.
“They’re crimes of opportunity,” he said. “People looking to make a quick buck … might break into a storage shed [rather than] break into someone’s house.”
Copper is popular target for some discerning thieves, who strip copper tubing and wiring from vacant homes. Copper thieves who vandalized a vacant house in Bennington, Vermont severed the main line connecting a water heater to an outside propane tank. The thieves fled the house as it filled with gas. The owner, who arrived later to show the dwelling to prospective buyers, was overwhelmed by exposure to the gas and had to be hospitalized.
Copper thieves have targeted libraries, public works, and – increasingly – air conditioners. The large and growing stock of foreclosed and abandoned houses offers a promising hunting ground for copper thieves, and many of those buildings are rendered unfit for resale after looters have cannibalized their copper plumbing and wiring, as well as any other metals that can be bundled together and sold to scrap metal dealers.
The phenomenon of “metal poaching” — stealing copper from houses, building sites, and anywhere else it is found unattended – is a significant indicator of the dollar’s decline. In early 2006, as the price of copper and scrap iron started to climb, it became common for thieves to descend on construction sites and extract whatever they could find. In some cities, air conditioners accessible from outside homes or other buildings were frequently gutted. Some metal theft rings even stole manhole covers to be melted down for resale as pig iron.
In 2008, when this trend first started gathering momentum, real estate broker Marc Charney of Brockton, Massachusetts described how thieves sacked one of his most promising properties: “They cut it [the copper wiring] here and then pulled it right out of the wall…. I had this property under agreement. We negotiated. The offer was accepted. The buyer came back to the property three weeks later only to find they [the thieves] had gotten in and stolen the copper, so we had to go back to the bank and renegotiate.”
Poachers are targeting other valuable commodities as well. A headline from the March 28, 2008 issue of Canada’s National Post reported that “Grain is the new copper” — that is, a commodity proving to be an irresistible target for thieves.
Once again, monetary inflation has combined with a dramatic increase in demand to drive the price of this commodity toward the ionosphere: “A bushel of spring wheat, which has historically traded between $3 and $7, has spiked as high as $24 in recent weeks,” observes the Post. This creates potent incentives for “grain rustlers” to ply their trade.
“In January , Kansas police began investigating nearly a dozen reports of thieves driving their trucks up to farm bins and siphoning out tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of wheat,” the paper continued. The same kind of crime has become quite common in Canada — home of triticale, and a major producer of wheat and other grains. California almond farmers have recently been targeted by rustlers as well.”
Given this summer’s disastrous crop forecast for corn, soybeans, and other Midwestern staples, “grain rustling” is likely to spike again — with grim implications for both producers and consumers.
To learn about several other troubling trends in crime, read more here.