The turmoil in financial markets over the past three years has seen volatility rising and commodity prices hitting new highs. Across the world, investors have sought to get exposure to all sorts of commodities, fleeing paper money for fear of inflation, as central banks loosened monetary policy in desperate attempts to kick-start weak economies.
But it's not just investors who have tried with all their might to get a piece of the action in the world of commodities. The stealing of steel, copper, and lead objects for the purpose of selling them as scrap metal increased during the financial crisis—to such an extent that South Africa's Chamber of Commerce started publishing a Copper Theft Barometer each month.
Some strange objects stolen to be sold as scrap metal include warheads, shopping carts, and a church roof. Click ahead to find out more.
Posted 29 Aug 2011
Copper prices have increased by more than 45 percent in the past two years, and all over the world copper thieves are sharpening their skills. So much so that the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry last December introduced a Copper Theft Barometer—which has revealed some shocking statistics.
In January and April 2011, for instance, thefts of copper have reached a value of 20.5 million rand ($3 million). They have since decreased somewhat, to around 15.8 million rand in July.
The nation of Armenia was knocked offline for hours in March this year by Hayastan Shakarian, a 75-year-old pensioner from the neighboring nation of Georgia, who cut off a fiber-optic cable near the border while digging for scrap metal. Copper prices had risen about 30 percent in the previous six months.
The pensioner said that she had only been collecting firewood, but the Georgian interior ministry said that, despite her claims to innocence, Shakarian had already confessed to cutting the fiber-optic cable.
Warhead components vanished from a train carrying defense equipment from Romania to Bulgaria, prompting a nationwide search and assurances that the parts did not pose a danger to the public.
Police later arrested a 14-year-old boy who was charged with stealing them to sell them as scrap metal. All the components were recovered, Romanian police said. The price of steel jumped about 45 percent between July 2010 and July 2011.
The 45 percent jump in steel prices in the year to July did not tempt only thieves in the second-poorest European Union member Romania. Police in Essex, a county in the south-east of England, got in touch with scrap metal dealers after more than 800 shopping carts disappeared from Asda—the U.K. trading name for world's largest retailer Wal-Mart Stores—between the beginning of June and mid-July. Asda said it stepped up security after the incident, while police appealed for witnesses.
Also in Essex, the vicar and parishioners of a church slept in sleeping bags on the floor for five days anticipating the return of thieves who had stolen 90 square meters of lead and copper from the church's roof, worth around 25,000 pounds ($40,750).
A 17-year-old boy was arrested on suspicion of burglary from the church, which is a listed building and survived World War II bombing of the area. Lead prices surged around 56 percent in the year before June.
In Elstree, a town north-east of London in the U.K., mourners complained that flower urns have been stolen repeatedly in a cemetery during the summer, accusing thieves who sell them as scrap metal. In what one woman described as a "heartless attack," the flowers from several metal urns were dumped on the ground and the urns were taken. It costs around 25 pounds ($40.75) to replace one urn.
In the south of France, thieves disturbed road and rail traffic at the end of July by stealing 12 batteries powering signals at a level crossing, attracted by the lead they contained, which increased in price by more than 55 percent over the past year.
The barriers stayed down for hours as there was no power to the signals. In April this year, the theft overnight of 800 meters of copper cabling from French train tracks caused delays to high-speed TGV and Thalys trains as well as Eurostar trains under the Channel.
How do thieves know where to hit? Sometimes they rely on tip-offs and luck, but modern technology seems to be making their task easier. In March, when copper prices were around 32 percent higher than the year before, the British press reported that four men from Derby looked up more than 4,000 images on Google Earth to find the best places to steal copper wiring along the side of railway lines across the U.K.
The damage cost nearly 1 million pounds to repair, as some of the cables were live wires, but the thieves only made 80,000 pounds.
Stealing of rail tracks, equipment and cable have become so bad in Germany that the national rail operator Deutsche Bahn is slapping invisible codes on the metal parts to help police identify the objects stolen and then sold as scrap metal.
The codes are only visible in a special light and show the location from where the object was stolen. Last year, Deutsche Bahn and the police caught around 500 people stealing rail equipment.
A distiller in the south-west of France saw his way of making some extra euros endangered by copper thieves who stole his distillery tools. Joel Danton was going around villages in his region with his specially-designed copper distillery for apples, grapes or pears, offering to make strong, brandy-like drinks.
The equipment costs between 30,000 euros ($43,200) and 150,000 euros to replace. Thieves stole 500 kilograms of copper, which would sell for about 3,500 euros.