New Device Helps Contractor Deter Copper Thieves

The Arizona Republic

Nine months ago, David Wright’s construction company in Phoenix was losing up to $20,000 in copper theft per project, a serious problem in Arizona that last year prompted two new laws.

The value of copper more than quadrupled in the past four years and not even security guards could protect his construction sites from thieves. Since 2004, the price of copper has increased from about 80 cents to more than $3.60 a pound.

In Scottsdale, thieves have taken copper wire from as many as 40 air-conditioning units in one south Scottsdale neighborhood, where police have arrested men with backpacks full of stolen metal.

In another recent case, police recovered a stolen 18-wheeler filled with $500,000 in copper wire intended for light-rail transit construction. It had been abandoned in the desert near Deer Valley Airport after it was reported stolen.

Wright turned to the Internet for help, where he came across a small device called Mobilelock, a GPS locater and anti-theft alarm geared for construction companies that runs at $500 plus a monthly service fee of $20.

Since Wright bought a Mobilelock, theft and vandalism has decreased by 90 percent on his construction site.

The device also led to the arrest of four people, Wright said.

Made by DEWALT, an international power-tool manufacturing company, Mobilelock is about the size of a hand.

It can be mounted onto most surfaces and features four sensors that notify owners through phone or e-mail when they have been set off.

“What I liked about this product is its ability to locate it,” Wright said.

The device is wireless and can be monitored online through its GPS system.

If the alarm is triggered, people listed through the Web site are notified. If it is attached to something stolen, the GPS will track down its exact location.

For other companies such as Salt River Project, which has had copper theft problems for years, Mobilelock might not be the solution.

Pete Chapas, security manager for SRP, said the water and power utility cannot disclose whether or not it uses Mobilelock as a security device but did say the technology would not be of much use.

“Our approach has more to do with deterrence,” Chapas said. “We just try to take the temptation for the criminal.”

Since May, Chapas said, SRP has lost $250,000 to copper theft and damages.

The company spent nearly $1 million just for security and has taken measures such as painting bare copper the patented SRP color blue, which makes it more difficult for thieves to sell it and reduces its value, he said.

SRP gets hit with attempted theft about five times a month, Chapas said, although he has noticed a decline because of arrests in recent months.

New laws may also be deterring copper thieves.

As of May, one new law requires dealers or recyclers who buy copper to keep photocopies of the sellers’ driver’s licenses.

Another law, which took effect in September, forces sellers attempting to cash in on copper to show ID if it is worth more than $25.

And the quick payout is gone, too.

Instead, recyclers who buy the metal must mail a check to the seller if it is more than $300.

For Wright, relying on the law isn’t enough, and he said it’s a relief knowing that Mobilelock will immediately notify him if there is an intruder.

Bill Pugh, director of sales and marketing for DEWALT, said it took the company almost three years to develop Mobilelock.

“There’s always been a demand . . . but it’s been an unfilled futuristic idea,” he said.