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AC theft steady, copper prices decline

 Le Anne Long has a problem, one that's fairly common nationwide. She's had to shell out thousands of dollars to replace a stolen air conditioning unit in a vacant home that she's in charge of in the Sterling Lakes neighborhood. The problem is widespread, and it doesn't seem to be decreasing with the stabilization of the local housing market. Police are trying, but they're stumped as well, as to how to fix a problem that has become an epidemic.

While neighborhoods around Newton County are experiencing AC theft, the home Long manages is in the Sterling Lakes subdivision off Flat Shoals Road. A nice enough neighborhood, Sterling Lakes is starting to go downhill. While vacant houses seem to be kept up, they are obviously vacant, and neighbors are turning a blind eye to the problems.

Some homes have a similar insignia tagged on them. Covington Police Detective Daniel Seals said they believe isn't gang related, but just one person. Once there was a hybrid gang in the area going by the name Dem Lake Boyz, but it's no longer around.

"That area is actually pretty clean for gangs," Seals said. "We think a bored person in the neighborhood is out there tagging. We have not had any crimes down there that are linked to gangs."

And while that's a relief, it's still an eyesore to those who live there, and those who may come in to look at the numerous homes available for rent in the area.

But a larger problem than graffiti is the theft of AC units. A quick drive through the neighborhood shows no less then nine houses, obviously empty, with an empty concrete slab where an AC unit should be.

"Air conditioners are hot. They are easy to steal and quick to steal," Seals said. "Some scrap yards will take them [AC unit] whole, but a lot of them will make the seller take the copper out. At the very most people make $50 - and that's a big unit that you've done a good job getting the copper out of. The average going price for a car is under $200, and that's 2,000 pounds." Paul Bacon, general manager of Oconee Metal Recovery, said it can be difficult to identify whether an air conditioning unit is stolen.

"What we do is ask questions. Are they legit? If it's an (official) heating and air conditioning truck and they're bringing in a heating and air conditioning unit, then I think you're pretty good," Bacon said. "If it's a guy coming in with a grocery cart and he's got a heating and air conditioning pool, that raises a red flag, but it's not as easy as some people might think."

Bacon said the easiest way to identify thefts is when law enforcement agencies call Oconee Metal and let them know about stolen items before they're bought. Residents can also call Oconee Metal, at (770) 385-0087, and other area scrap yards.

At one point, metal theft was responsible for at least 35 percent of the burglaries in the city of Conyers in the past year, according to Conyers Police Lt. Jack Dunn.

“It’s kind of fluctuated with the market,” said Dunn. “Two years ago, we were having to direct our efforts at parked cars because they were getting under and stealing the catalytic converters. Since then you have the housing market crash; it has swapped and copper has become the valuable metal.”

In Rockdale County, at least 131 incidents of stolen property were reported by the Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office from July 2010 – June 2011 that involved metal theft, including catalytic converters, copper, and other metals.

Companies and organizations like the City of Conyers have started marking their AC units on the inside in an effort to catch thieves, but those methods aren't foolproof. The Georgia Recyclers Association and the Southeast Metal Task Force also send out alerts about stolen items to scrap yards.

"It works really easy when we know something is stolen and (police) get word out to us. That's when arrests made, but it's still hard, because by the time report is made, the item could have already been passed through the scrap yard. Thieves also try to take items to another county," Bacon said.

Oconee Metal has very few individuals bring in ACs, mainly receiving units from 30 HVAC companies. In fact, Oconee Metal has to worry as much about people stealing from its scrap yard as it does buying stolen goods.

Bacon said there's not much copper in an AC, but anyone selling an AC can break it down in its component parts, namely the aluminum copper coil, some brass and no. 1 and no. 2 insulated wires. A smaller home AC will go for around $35 total, while a two to three-ton unit will bring in $60 or more.

Long said the rental home that she manages not only had the AC unit taken, but thieves also broke into the home and ripped the interior lines out as well. It cost her $5,500 to replace the damage. Not only that, she has also had the home broken into several times. Each time she makes a claim to the insurance company that's another tick against her. She's worried the company will soon drop the home's insurance because of too many claims in such a short period of time. And other companies will look at those numbers as well before agreeing to insure the property.

"Insurance companies are actually starting to cancel insurance on properties when they have too many claims on one policy. A new insurance company can decline you for all those past claims as well and they can increase amounts," Long explained.

According to Seals, increased patrol has been added in the neighborhood, but the units are so quick to nab, it takes only a vehicle and two people to take a unit, and thieves can be in and out in a couple of minutes. By the time patrol comes around a neighborhood, a home at the front of it could have its AC long gone.

"Criminals will tell you that two working together can get an AC unit off of the pad and into a truck in just a couple of minutes. They are just cutting lines and running."

And Sterling Lakes isn't alone. The problem is in all areas of the county, especially in neighborhoods that were developed but remain largely vacant. Thefts typically aren't immediately reported because owners don't visit those vacant properties daily. By the time it's noticed, the AC unit could have been gone for months.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, AC thefts cost victims around $1 billion annually. The problem has had electric companies across the state to start offering rewards and legislators to start proposing bills that limit thieves' abilities to actually sell copper.

In South Carolina a person must have a license to sell copper, according to legislation passed in the summer of 2011. Georgia has gotten tighter with laws and punishments geared towards scrap metal recycling center. Three pending bills in Georgia address this issue. Two requiring legible records and one regulates the payment for copper items.

So how can you stop a problem that's hard to trace and hard to target? According to Seals, you do it with community assistance. He's hoping that neighbors will take note of strange cars at vacant homes and note the license plate numbers and that they will jot down a description of someone acting suspicious. He, and other law enforcement officials around the state, believes this might be the key to stopping the problem, or at least slowing it down.

"Some people call them nosy neighbors; I call them our best help. A lot of these criminals are pretty good at it because that is their job," he explained. "If people call about them, tell us who they are and take back their neighborhoods maybe that will help."


Gabriel Khouli contributed to this story.