The toll runs into hundreds of thousands of dollars, likely more; thefts are escalating, spurred by lack of reporting and recognition; regulations are only a dream and the authorities are sceptical a problem even exists.
Contractors in the Cayman Islands say theft of metals and fresh wiring from construction sites is growing, as thieves are emboldened and prices for metal – particularly copper – escalate.
Dave Johnston, managing director of Corporate Electric and treasurer for the Cayman Contractors Association, has himself been a victim. He and industry colleagues are trying to combat the problem, talking to police and the public, but it’s an uphill battle.
“The numbers are hard to know because a lot of people don’t take the time to report, but there are probably $500,000 in thefts in the last year and up to $1 million if you account for replacing the stolen materials and the labour to re-install.
“Approximately one-third of the cost to make repairs is for replacement cable, plus twice this for paying the repair crews,” Mr. Johnston said.
Metal is easy to recycle, making it increasingly attractive in the face of rising global costs. From $1.25 per pound in 2009, the cost of copper is $3.33 per pound. Rising prices also spur trade in other non-ferrous metals such as aluminium and lead.
Before Jamaica permanently banned trade in scrap metals in 2011, exports went from US$13.3 million in 2005 to US$99.58 in 2006. Official efforts to regulate the trade with the 2007 Scrap Metal Act were abandoned after still-soaring prices, ongoing thefts and flaws in the legislation stymied enforcement efforts.
Air-conditioning coils and entire units, pipes, communications and electrical cabling, catalytic converters, even rails are regular targets, removed from both public and private building sites, driving costs for builders, homeowners and industries. The stolen materials are sold locally to other contractors or shipped overseas, chiefly to Honduras and Jamaica.
Bruce Davis, of electrical contractor Paleme Caribbean, said he has lost $30,000 per year to metal theft for the last three years.
“Every contractor has been hit. Containers are broken into. It’s mostly extracted, though, from construction sites,” he said.
“I heard about a few thefts, then I started checking every day. Homeowners are hiring security companies to oversee their [electrical] lines until CUC is able to get there and activate them. I’ve been in gated communities where the lines have all been stolen,” he said.
Recycling metal is a relatively new industry, Mr. Davis said, indicating nine or 10 companies were involved. As such, regulation remains light and not every company has a Trade and Business Licence.
Even CUC, because of the considerable amount of copper in its cables and conductors, has been hard hit.
In the past two years, according to spokeswoman Pat Bynoe-Clarke, “CUC has had several cases of theft of copper conductors where perpetrators have entered CUC property and removed stored cable, and at least two cases where installed underground cable was removed.”
Costs, she said, were significant: “New insulated high-voltage cable, which CUC uses costs in the region of CI$12.50 per foot; however, the low-voltage cables that our customers would use in their installations typically have more copper and less insulation and are therefore more valuable to the thieves for recycling.”
In March, the chairman of the Bahamas Electricity Corporation said hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of copper had been stolen annually from the company. While the government in Hamilton has tried a partial ban on metal exports, some are advocating a total prohibition.
The UK Association of Police Officers pegs the cost of metal theft at £770 million per year, and on 1 January, the state of California banned cash payments for copper.
Pierre Beaudet, owner and director of Cayman Climate Control, said thieves have cut his locks and fencing, broken into his containers and “took everything: copper, new equipment, used material. They cleared my yard.”
He said he has been robbed four times and lost at least $20,000 in the thefts, not counting insurance costs and “the time spent repairing and reordering”.
“It’s been quite lively this year,” he said. “We have had to protect our sites with cameras and alarms.” As costs escalate, he says, “prices can double and that boosts prices to consumers”.
However, Tim Fry part owner of 345 Recycling, believes the problem is not as bad as described.
“There is so much garbage around, and the guys that broke into [Dave] Johnston’s containers did a professional job and did a lot of work. They were caught with the stolen materials and his tools and equipment wrapped up in it.
“People go into the landfill and swap out material,” Mr. Fry said. “They bring air conditioning units to us. It’s people off the street and a lot of it is pure garbage. I know people get stuff stolen, but it’s not out of control. The price for old copper is not $3.30 per pound; We pay about $1 per pound for scrap.
“Crooks are going to do what crooks do, but we know what’s going on and the police are on top of it,” he said.
Mr. Johnston described the ease of exporting scrap metal, and the Customs Department requires few waybills, receipts, bills of origin, licences or an account.
Acting Deputy Collector of Customs Jeff Jackson said his unit scans 1,500 containers, both inbound and outbound, every month as part of government’s year-old “freight security initiative”.
While scanning is not legally required, he said, every unit must have a manifest and because scrap metal is not contraband, it can be legally shipped.
“If [the material] is not reported stolen, then how do we know?” Mr. Jackson asked. While acknowledging metal theft as “a growing problem, and the public needs to be aware, the problem does not lie with Customs,” Mr. Jackson said. “We have recently had some successes, and some people have been held for questioning, but the people in the business need better regulations, processes and procedures.”
The Royal Cayman Islands Police Service has said they are aware of the problem, but dispute claims that it is growing.
“In all of 2012, we had only a handful of complaints,” said police spokeswoman Janet Dougall. “The last was in December.
“In 2013, we have had no complaints at all.”