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Metal Theft: Understanding the Severity of the Problem and the Best Preventative Solutions (Update)

Metal Theft: Understanding the Severity of the Problem and the Best Preventative Solutions (Update)
Metal Theft: Understanding the Severity of the Problem and the Best Preventative Solutions (Update)

Updated for 2024. Metal theft costs the UK economy around half a billion pounds per year – it’s a serious problem that isn’t going away.

The resale value of certain commonly used metals continues to make metal theft a highly prized activity for adventurous, risk-taking thieves in the UK and across Europe. While some businesses assume that metal theft is mainly a problem for fabricators and automotive manufacturers, the reality is that it impacts every sector (including yours), with substantial cost impacts.

From office blocks to churches, construction sites to railways, warehouses to utility sites, you could be running a high-risk target that could suffer significant and costly damage as thieves steal metal to resell.

In this article, we’ll examine why metal theft is such a persistent issue and what you can do to keep your business safe.

Key Takeaways

  • Metal theft costs the UK economy roughly half a billion pounds yearly, and 60 known organised crime groups are engaged in this illegal activity.
  • According to the British Metals Recycling Association, thefts of high-value metals, including vehicle components, have grown 170% since 2013.
  • Security measures such as CCTV surveillance, security patrols, and advanced perimeter intrusion detection devices can effectively prevent metal theft.
Metal Theft - how bad in the problem

Why Is Metal Theft Continuing to Rise?

The value of scrap metal rises and falls with the economy, but copper wire and pipes, soldered copper (braziery) and brass all hold a relatively consistent high-value year on year – and have only risen with the recent cost of living crisis.

For example, UK Metals indicates that copper stripped from cables can fetch £6.45 per kilo.

One residential home has just under 200 kilos of copper wiring and cables, alongside countless other fixtures and fittings, demonstrating why this criminality appeals to thieves and organised criminals.

Thieves will take pipes, cabling, cylinders, handles, taps, signs, roofing material, equipment, fittings, and even bronze statues and church bells—anything they can sell as scrap metal.

Larger-scale thefts might target railway signalling and overhead power cables, catalytic converters from vehicles, manhole covers, and emergency generators. The ramifications aren’t solely in replacing stolen items and the increased cost of insurance, but the extreme damage caused to service users.

Metal thefts have caused considerable delays within public transport networks, resulted in widespread problems with power networks and telecoms systems, and meant essential services like hospitals or schools need to temporarily close.

How Widespread Is the UK’s Metal Theft Problem?

According to Europol, metal theft crosses all social, economic, and cultural boundaries. It affects the transport, energy, business, and telecommunications sectors, causing devastating losses to industry and local businesses alike and major disruption to essential public services.

In 2021/2022, metal thefts sharply rose compared to the previous year, indicating that the problem may have been accelerated by the cost-of-living crisis in 2022, which continued in 2023.

During the 2022/23 period, metal theft data remained high, with a slight drop of 4.9%, with reported incidents falling from 29,920 to 28,446. Of course, those figures only represent metal thefts in England and Wales and those reported to the local police force.

metal theft stats

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A Case Study on the Impacts of Metal Theft

Blackpool Council were forced to remove public artworks from display and replace them with replicas when three of four lead-based figures were stolen from a park where they had stood since 1926.

“It’s devastating,” says Elaine Smith, Chairwoman of the Blackpool Civic Trust. “These statues are part of Blackpool’s heritage. To us, they are priceless, and these thieves will get a few pounds in cash for them.”

When the theft of a single section of copper cable was stolen from a railway line in West Yorkshire, the knock-on effect caused chaos for thousands of passengers. More than 100 trains were delayed for over 17 hours, with the cost of the damage to property in excess of £80,000.

‘Metal theft has always been an issue, particularly for clients in remote settings or industrial parks where criminals know they can enter undetected overnight or during weekends, raiding warehouses, storage bays, parking facilities and equipment stores.

It’s essential that businesses and property owners avoid complacency and take proactive measures to ensure that lax security or a lack of surveillance doesn’t elevate their risk profile and make their site an attractive prospect for thieves.’

Who Is Being Affected By Metal Theft?

As we’ve seen, metal theft doesn’t apply only to industries that focus on metal production or that use metals in manufacturing processes. An independent retailer with a metal security grid over its storefront, a church with a heritage roof, or a property owner with an empty commercial or residential unit may all be targeted.

Metal thieves tend to focus on places where opportunities are plentiful, and security is low, so vacant properties and unguarded areas are at the top of the target list.

The thrill and financial reward are so great that neither the chance of being caught nor the likelihood of personal injury are sufficient deterrents to determined thieves. These are simply risks worth taking.

However, the lasting impact of metal theft is considerable. This crime continues on a daily basis to cause serious loss and disruption to property owners, farmers, landowners, and rural business owners alike.

According to James Kelly, CEO of the British Metals Recycling Association, the rise in incidents is due to two main factors: the price of metal and poor enforcement of regulations and the law.

What Can You Do to Prevent Metal Theft?

Thoroughly reviewing your sites and properties and being pragmatic about the likely risks of illegal entry and the security measures you currently have in place are good places to start. Our previous guides offer further information to help you learn more about property risk inspection.

Basic measures, such as not leaving copper piping at building sites or unused/exposed copper cabling alongside railway lines, will help. You may also need to remove gaps in perimeter fences near property or railway lines and introduce controlled access for utility companies or tradespeople.

Effective security, both for the short and long-term protection of a property, is a wise investment compared to the cost of replacing stolen metalwork, potential property damage, and business or service downtime.

These solutions are just some of the many strategies we might recommend for safeguarding your business or premises from metal theft and reinforcing defences across the board. For more information, please contact the security specialists at Clearway for a confidential discussion at your convenience.

Frequently Asked Questions

Which Metals Are Most Often Stolen in the UK?

Thieves target a wide range of metals, including steel, copper, aluminium, bronze, brass, and iron. Metals have a high scrap value, which means that fixtures and infrastructure containing metal may be targeted, from train tracks to wiring, manhole covers to transformers, and even monuments and beer kegs.

What Is the Best Way to Protect My Business From Metal Theft?

The best possible security will depend on a complete risk assessment, where we can assess the layout of your site, the types of valuable materials you have, and access points that might be most appealing to opportunist thieves.

We can then recommend a comprehensive security system, whether that means a video-verified security alarm for an empty unit, regular patrols by qualified security teams, or adding around-the-clock CCTV surveillance.

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