While lax law enforcement remains outstanding, local and overseas contractors and traders say legislation, licensing and lading are the keys to halting wholesale theft of metal from work sites in the Cayman Islands.
The larceny grows as local building and electrical contractors, telecommunications companies and utilities battle thieves who invade construction sites, stripping wire, air-conditioning units, pipes and nonferrous metals, selling to recyclers and others, often exporting the material overseas.
Industry frustration is palpable. Few laws regulate the scrap-metal trade. Receipts detailing prices and sources of the material are not mandatory. Bills of lading that describe the contents of any exports, their destination and who will receive them are not required.
It is, said Dave Johnston of Corporate Electric, “like a little candy store with no one at the door”.
In the US, regulation of recycled metal and related material, while better developed, still leaves traders wary. Oregon-based scrap trader John Mosso said legislation in his home state has loopholes and is frequently open to interpretation, hampering efforts to combat the illicit trade.
He hopes his own experience might aid Cayman Islands contractors, traders and law enforcement, however, describing such tactics as “hiding the scrap by taking it out of the locale it was stolen in, then mixing it in with non-stolen material. Sometimes they cut it up, burn it or in some other manner disassemble the material or items to make its identification more difficult, if not impossible, to trace”.
While laws are relatively simple – usually requiring no more than a set of completed forms – they tread a delicate line, seeking disruption of shady operators, but protecting legitimate business. The mix requires vigilance from both traders and police.
“I always require a signed bill of sale on top of any other paperwork that is required,” said Mr. Mosso, longtime owner and operator of Scio Metals south of Salem, Oregon.
In business 50 years, he said, “usually I request that the person sign an affidavit to the effect he or she is selling [scrap] to me free and clear, and that in no way am I involved in its theft or disappearance should it turn up as a stolen item.”
Citing something he calls the “California Model”, Mr. Mosso lists some of the obligations traders must fulfil.
Anyone who owns or transports metal must carry a “Certificate of Metal Transport Slip”, producing it on demand when moving nonferrous metals – aluminium, copper, any of their alloys or stainless steels – to any place of purchase.
“I also use my forms to track origin of metal categories, prices and metal sources. This allows me to examine overall sales, costs of hauling, costs of purchasing if any, and other logistics,” he said.
“We have some set rules to follow. As I gather metals, I create an acquisition log indicating where I get metals, then I clean and separate those metals into categories, I fill out a transportation log, which I keep on me when I deliver the material to the purchasing business. I attach the sales receipt to that paperwork, then, when I receive the cheque, I attach the voucher part of the cheque to this paperwork, then file it along with other sales transactions.”
His own safeguards add to those complexities. On his own, he said, he employs other paperwork to chronicle his acquisitions: types, dates, weights, descriptions, sale prices “and any unusual details”, aiding future decision-making.
“A respectable amount of people are killed each year in the United States,” Mr. Mosso said, “due to electrocution by attempting to steal power line or material that has current going through it.”
In George Town, Kris Bergstrom, owner of local contractor Edgewater Development, said he lost $20,000 in materials, and was forced to replace everything when thieves invaded the site of his Surfside Beach Bar and Restaurant early last year near the old Courtyard Marriott.
“We went in to do a renovation, building a bar, and the electrical system had been completely vandalised,” he said. “They pulled 300 feet of copper, they destroyed a transformer which CUC had to replace. The main power cables were taken. They stripped the air-conditioning units, stole the copper coils including the wiring in the coolers and any copper in the refrigeration lines.”
Law enforcement, Mr. Bergstrom said, remains ineffective, but the chief failing is a lack of legislation.
“We don’t feel the police have been effective at all,” he said, and points to disruptions caused by police squads combing crime scenes. “Unless there is legislation to prohibit the export of these types of metals, unless we have local registers and require proof of where [the metal] came from, we will not be successful.”
Mr. Johnston is blunt: “There is no metal transport slip, and everything that is possible to go on here is going on. The amount of copper going out to Jamaica may not be as high as we had thought, but it is going to other jurisdictions. All kinds of other things are going as well.”
Most copper is shipped to the US in containers, he said, chasing “bona fide money and a lot of recycling companies”.
While the containers may be X-rayed, he said, few people know what they are looking at. “They should have paperwork, listing the contents and export destinations. Shippers need to fill in forms. We need a paper trail, but there is no process to ship out of Cayman; anyone can import or export. We should have a network. Otherwise, this just creates an element of criminality.”
Mr. Johnston said he has security tapes of hooded thieves in his own scrap yard, but neither he nor the police can identify them, meaning the culprits remain free.
“It is critical we address this or it will just keep going,” he said.
Mr. Mosso said he believes Cayman could control its problem with only a modest effort: “Your locale is much smaller and I think once you adapt a system like ours, you will probably have the tools in hand to make this problem more controllable. My hope is that my efforts benefit all on Cayman.”