VIDEO REPORT: Scrap Metal Thieves Costing City Tens of Thousands of Dollars

By: Phil Levin Email
By: Phil Levin Email

UPDATED: Monday, August 13, 2012 --- 11:15 p.m.

Madison city staff expect scrap metal thieves to strike while UW-Madison students move to new leases.

This week many apartment and housing terms expire ahead of the new semester. Students discard old furniture and electronics on the street, often stolen before the city can come and recycle.

"What we have are scavengers out there with pickup trucks and in some cases organized with multiple pickup trucks roaming through the whole area picking up scrap metal and taking it for recycling," said George Dreckmann, recycling coordinator for the City of Madison.

Dreckmann says during the moving week, his crew usually hauls more than 700 tons of extra material. As soon as items are placed along the street, they belong to the city, which sells the materials to recycling processors, trusted to remove mercury, lead, and other elements safely.

As copper prices remain high, surging prices for other scrap is encouraging streetside theft.

"The price for ferrous metals, like iron and steel have gone up as well, so that's where we're really seeing an increase," said Dreckmann.

The city and school are hosting e-cycling drop-offs, including on Brooks St. this week on campus. Click here for more information.


POSTED: Monday, February 6, 2012 --- 6:20 p.m.

Thieves are using a new method to cash in on scrap metal and in the long run it's really costing all of us, because the city of Madison says it's losing tens of thousands of dollars.

It's supposed to be a win win. The city takes the time and effort to pick up big items from your curb and they get to cash in on the scrap metal.

Recycling coordinator George Dreckmann says, "The revenue goes right into the city budget."

Or at least it's supposed to.

These days, more and more, that cash is finding it's way into the pockets of thieves.

When the economy started tanking scrap metal thefts became a big problem. Copper was often the target.

But thanks to a jump in the price of steal and easy access, things like wash machines are now disappearing off the curb.

You might be surprised the amount of money the city can get for the scrap metal. And when they're not getting that cash they say it's a problem.

Dreckmann says, "It's over 75-thousand dollars a year at a minimum in lost revenue. That's enough to pay the salaries of two of our employees so it does have an impact on taxpayers."

Homeowners are purchasing 35-dollar-stickers to guarantee city pick up. In other words they're wasting their money if a thief swipes it first.

Dreckmann says, "They're upset because they didn't get the service they paid for."

The thieves are organized. Dreckmann says often people will go out in a scout car or on a bike or moped, writing down where they see scrap metal. Then a pickup truck comes by to scoop it up.

Dreckmann says, "When it's put out at the curb it's assumed to be for city collection and becomes property of the city."

They're mad they are losing cash but city staff say it's also a pollution concern.

When they drop the stuff off they pay a contractor to remove things like mercury switches and freon.

Dreckmann says, "We know the scavengers aren't doing those things and it ends up in the environment."

Madison Police Captain Jim Wheeler says they've made their officers aware of the scrap metal scavengers.

When it comes to scrap metal theft, they've had enough.

Wheeler says, "It also goes with our issues of drug use because a lot of people are stealing just to get easy cash to buy drugs."

To help stop it the city wants to develop an electronic monitoring system. They say it would be very similar to the one they just passed for pawn and second hand shops.

All scrap metal purchasers would keep electronic record of their customers on one database. It would be a database the city would also be plugged in to.

At Resource Solutions Corp. they installed an electronic system and say it's made a huge difference in catching the thieves that show up. They say by word of mouth it's also making sure others don't even try selling stolen metal at their place.

Lance Hahn says, "Even the expense of the scanner, which was a very expensive piece of equipment (was worth it). We now have a very good idea of what people are bringing in here."

By state law all scrap metal buyers must keep these records, but Madison police now say they want in and want everyone on a system they can be hooked in to.

Wheeler says, "If we can identify those patterns right away we can probably solve these crimes quicker."

Frustrated city staff say it's worth a shot.

Dreckmann says, "I certainly think it would help."

Dreckmann says since 2009 the amount of scrap metal the city is picking up is down over 750 tons.

And as for the integrated electronic monitoring the police department mentioned, this story will be the first many are hearing of it because it's such a new idea.

They say now they're waiting to hear some feedback from scrap metal purchasers.

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