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Metals lure for thieves

From vicars complaining of stolen bells, manholes missing covers or cable heists on the railways: metal theft is on the rise as prices rocket on the international market in response to the demand of boom economies like India and China.

In Ukraine, thieves have stolen an entire 11m 1t steel bridge that spanned the river Svalyavka. Here, the rail network has been hardest hit by this crime wave. In 2006/7 Network Rail reported more than 1,000 incidents of cable theft, causing 243,717 delay minutes.

This was significantly up from the year before when there were just 50,021 minutes delay due to cable theft.

Of the minutes lost in 2006/7, more than 190,000 were on the London North Eastern Route, with another 145,000 in the north east region. In 2006/7, replacing stolen cables cost in excess of £4M.

Assistant Chief Constable of the British Transport Police Paul Crowther said metal theft was the biggest challenged faced by his force after terrorism, and he is employing a series of both hi-tech and traditional measures to deal with the problem.

Surveillance of rogue scrap metal dealers now involves more than the traditional stake-out. Automatic licence plate number recognition technology is used in high risk areas in conjunction with helicopter patrols.

New marking systems make it easier for police to identify stolen metals and cables and hundreds of arrests are being made every week, but thefts are continuing to rise.

"In one operation at the beginning of October, we engaged with a scrap dealer which resulted in the arrest of 17 individuals as well as the seizure of seven vehicles, £50,000 in cash and a significant quantity of metal," said Crowther.

But the Transport Police activity is not confined to co-ordinating a response across the constabularies of Britain. A Europe-wide day of action in July resulted in 112 arrests across the continent as well as the seizure of around 66,000t of copper.

The British Metals Recycling Association (BMRA) is also working with the Association of Chief Police Officers to combat the problem and has produced a 'stolen metals bulletin', which enables victims of theft to alert members within 24 hours.

The bulletin produces information to identify stolen materials, giving the minority of unscrupulous scrap metal dealers less opportunity to plead ignorance as to the provenance of the metal they acquire.

Crowther appealed to contractors to report the movements of suspicious individuals, and for those who have information about stolen metals to contact Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111 or the British Transport Police dedicated metals theft hotline on 0800 405 040.

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