The theft of metal to sell on as scrap has hit epidemic proportions in the UK, and very recently there have been calls for a ban on cash transactions for scrap dealers. Many feel that metal theft is a crime they are powerless to prevent, but whilst it is difficult to fight thefts with modern technology, there are a number of options that can provide some level of protection.
The theft of metal has hit epidemic proportions in the UK, and very recently there have been calls for a ban on cash transactions for scrap dealers. Many feel that metal theft is a crime they are powerless to prevent, but whilst it is difficult to fight thefts with modern technology, there are a number of options that can provide some level of protection.
The scrap metal business is claimed to be worth £5 billion each year, and traditionally the trade has been based upon a cash culture. Those involved in trades such as construction and renovations, demolition, plumbing and electrical work, roofing and numerous other similar businesses typically use scrap dealers to dispose of certain elements of trade waste, with a cash return. Some will visit dealers every few days with scrap, as when it is necessary.
In recent years, the cost of metal has risen dramatically, and this has also increased the potential value of scrap metal. The returns available have become attractive to criminals, and nowadays not all scrap metal is actually ‘scrap’.
Sources of metal are all around us. Critical infrastructure uses metal in various forms. Roads, railways and communications systems are typically reliant on cable, and with copper prices high, mile upon mile of valuable metal is an obvious attraction. However, it’s not just the typically attractive metals such as lead, copper and brass that attract the attention of thieves. Prices of iron and steel are up too, and heavyweight items make these metals attractive to thieves too.
It is estimated that metal theft has an annual cost to the UK economy of over £750 million. Whilst the targets are varied, there are some sites that are more at risk than others. Copper cable is a sought-after commodity for criminal gangs, and it is estimated that the UK’s railways have suffered losses amounting to over £13 million since 2008 which can be attributed to metal theft. Obviously, the real cost to the railways is higher, as the thefts lead to delays and disruption. However, much of the cabling is used for signalling and other safety devices, so the potential losses are unthinkable!
Churches are also frequently hit for roofing lead. Insurance claims from churches for stolen roofing lead hit a record high in 2011. One cathedral lost lead valued at £10,000 in one night, and many others saw widespread losses that indicated a trend over the past three years seeing theft figures double or even treble in some regions.
In December 2011, police actions saw the seizure of 14 tons of suspected stolen railway cabling, and Scotland Yard announced that a dedicated unit would be set up to tackle metal theft.
Of course, it’s not just infrastructure sites, churches and historical buildings, street furniture and vacant properties that are at risk. The metal trade itself is under attack. Estimates imply that around 50 per cent of the total losses attributable to metal theft are stolen from metal recycling businesses themselves.
Facing the threat
Metal theft is a difficult crime to tackle, predominantly because of its random nature, and because metal materials are so widespread. Attacks predominantly occur at night, and often take place in remote locations, which will often be open and without power.
This makes the prevention of metal theft a significant challenge for all concerned. However, without any challenge at all, incidents have been seen to grow exponentially, either by region or by target.
Repeat attacks represent another trend that is surfacing. As metal used for essential purposes is stolen, thieves know it will need to be replaced in a very short space of time. As they will be familiar with a site’s layout, the likelihood of a second attack is increased.
Businesses and organisations want to send out a strong message that those targeting their sites for the theft of metals run a significant risk of detection and arrest. They are aware that the police are putting significant resources behind efforts to stamp out this type of crime, and proposed law changes at least indicate that it will not be tolerated by the justice system.
With reported incidents running at around 1,000 each week, and targets as varied as railways and hospitals through churches and museums to brass plaques from memorials and cemeteries, the costs of metal theft to victims are significant. This is not considering the disruption that the thefts can cause, especially when cabling is targeted.
When put into perspective, many would happily invest in solutions, whether they be permanent, temporary or rapid deployment options to protect targets as when they arise. When considered against the potential losses, the systems represent a cost-effective solution, and also empower end users to protect their businesses.
The security industry has the technology in place, from things as simple as the use of video surveillance with illuminators, wireless detection – either external or in void properties – thermal imaging for large infrastructure sights and video analytics to spot incidents before losses occur. For the security sector, the challenges can – in some way – be met.
Thermal imaging is a valuable tool in the fight against metal theft, especially on sites such as transport infrastructure. Often targeted for cabling, these sites are typically open, and cover large areas. Because criminals rely on the theft of large amounts of material, vehicular access to locations is often required.
Thermal imaging can either be employed alone, and manufacturers that supply thermal imaging sensors include Axis Communications, Bosch, Samsung, Videotec and Flir. The devices can often be connected to traditional video solutions, or can be networked.
There are also a number of suppliers that combine thermal imaging sensors with traditional video surveillance. This allows the thermal element ot detect the presence of a human, and the video element can then take over for positive identification.
As a tool, video analytics can play a significant role. Because many of the sites are remote but private, this in effect creates something of a sterile zone which simplifies protection, and allows analytics to be employed in an effective manner.
Systems vary from dedicated analytics solutions through to IVA-capable cameras and recording options. Used as a first line of defence, analytics allow an operator to have any suspicious activity in off-limits areas brought to their attention for assessment. Because the protected areas include railways and roofs, activity should not occur, which makes it simpler for analytics to perform effectively.
24 Hour Surveillance
When considering tackling a crime such as metal theft, it is difficult to use standard technologies. However, you shouldn’t be too quick to rule them out, either.
Video surveillance is a powerful tool, and can be employed on a temporary basis if required. As many incidents occur at night, it is vital to ensure that additional illumination is included in the system design. Whilst infrared illumination is invisible to the human eye, certain illuminators will produce a red glow. If the application is covert, you must select illuminators with a frequency of 940nm.
Benchmark has tested a number of infrared illuminators for video surveillance applications, and units from Iluminar and Raytec both achieved Recommended status. Both manufacturers offer a choice of ranges and coverage angles, as well as PoE and conventional power options.