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Struggle against metal theft wrought with frustration
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In trying to find a way to stop the scourge of metal theft, there is plenty of frustration to go around.

Some home builders expressed frustration at recycling centers in Newton County and at law enforcement for not monitoring the salvage yards and records more closely.

"(Builders) are a little disgusted with the recycle places that don't alert authorities, because they're not helping things," said Andrea Hammond, Executive Director of the Newton County Home Builder's Association.

But recyclers and law enforcement have their own frustrations as well.

Scrap metal has no identifying numbers, like a car or an engine, and a piece of stolen scrap metal can be impossible to distinguish from a legally obtained piece of scrap metal, recyclers and law enforcement point out.

"It's hard as heck to tell where a piece of wire comes from," said Brian Cloud, one of the owners of Oconee Metal Recovery in Covington, which sees anywhere from 150 to 250 people a day bringing in all kinds of scrap metal.

The key, said Covington Police Department Detective Daniel Seals, is in the record keeping and cooperation.

State laws are very thorough and detailed about the records recyclers are required to keep, said Seals and the local centers have been keeping better records in recent years.

Two years ago, an owner and employee of the Oconee Metal Recovery center were arrested and charged with failing to maintain records as required by state law.

 "Before our 'crackdown,'" said Seals, "we had a lot of cases come across our desk where we couldn't get that extra step because of records. We just couldn't link that person to the items because we didn't have the paperwork to back it up. Since then, I have noticed an increase in the people we have been able to identify and arrest."

This tentative reaching out among groups that might once be considered adversaries seems to be driven by a recognition that both sides have more to gain more from cooperating than operating individually.

At Oconee, owner Ed Cloud, displayed a thick sheaf of papers from the transactions for one half-day. For each transaction, he said, they keep a copy of the person's photo identification, car make, model, and tag number, the items brought in and the price of those items.

At a recycle center down the street from Oconee, recently implemented computerized records make the record keeping and searching efficient and easy to access for law enforcement, said the owner, who declined to be identified.

In addition to keeping photo identification and records on each transaction, he said the center calls police whenever they encounter a suspect load or person.

"A good scrap person can tell," he said. A customer balking at producing photo identification or a person bringing items that would normally only be found in an industrial setting are some examples of things that might trigger suspicion.

Brian Cloud at Oconee said they contact the CPD a couple times a month with customers they suspect of having stolen metal.

"We go out of our way to make sure if something looks suspicious, we turn it in," he said.

Being more proactive in record keeping and reporting suspicious loads did affect business a little bit, he said. But most of Oconee's business comes from industrial customers, he said, with about 20 percent of their metal coming from the public.

"We could close our doors from the public and still be just as busy," he said.

The owner down the street, who estimated he saw about 25 percent of his business from public peddlers, echoed those sentiments.

"No doubt, we lost business, but the business we lost, there was something shady about it," he said. Keeping that kind of business away helped him keep a cleaner image, and helps him in the long run, he said.

In the next edition, we take a look at efforts outside of Newton County in combating metal theft.