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Posted on Fri, Sep 9, 2011 : 5:59 a.m.

Scrap metal thefts increase as police and businesses struggle to stem wave

By Kyle Feldscher

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Thieves have stolen aluminum siding from condominium units at the Liberty Square complex in Ypsilanti Township to sell for scrap.

Joseph Tobianski |

For some local thieves, everyday items that most people wouldn't consider valuable become targets for a quick theft that can be turned around into easy money.

And in troubling news for local residents, businesses and anyone else with loose metal hanging around, it’s nearly impossible to defend against.

There has been a rash of thefts reported this summer where seemingly random metal objects are taken from vehicles, local stores and, in the case of manhole covers that were stolen earlier this year, even right out of the ground.

Mike Radzik, director of police services in Ypsilanti Township, said police have little choice but to rely on residents to call in scrap-metal thefts as they happen to have any chance to stop them. And as people continue to struggle in a tough economy, he said, these types of crimes will look even more attractive to people who are willing to do whatever it takes to get money.

“I have to believe the economy is driving most of it,” Radzik said. “The reality is there are a lot of people out of work that have to eat and pay their bills … Compared to five or 10 years ago, the only thing that’s changed is the economy.”

For many people, protecting their cars, aluminum siding or any other metal pieces from being stolen for scrap metal isn’t weighing heavily on their minds. However, that can change once an attempt is made on their property.

John Fingerle, owner of Fingerle Lumber, was nearly a victim of a theft when a man loaded up his pick-up truck with steel racking that had been disassembled and was stored in an area on his property.

Fingerle said he never considered that the racking might be targeted for theft until he received notice from an employee that an Ann Arbor Police Department officer had stopped the act in progress.

“He just pulled his truck up and loaded it up and the AAPD caught him in the process of doing that,” Fingerle said. “Since then, we’ve taken steel banding and strapped the material together. It provides a little more security.”

Since the spring, there have been many reports in the Ann Arbor area of thefts similar to the one attempted on Fingerle’s business. It might seem absurd to steal copper wiring or piping, large pieces of steel or a 200-pound manhole cover but authorities say that the crimes are becoming more popular.

One of the most popular items targeted for their value as scrap metal are catalytic converters — a part on motor vehicles that turns the toxic fumes created by internal combustion engines into non-toxic gases that are released from the vehicle.

Detective Sgt. George Warchock, of the Washtenaw Area Auto Theft Team, said there’s usually at least one report of a catalytic converter stolen off a car each week.

“There’s no way to identify it to confirm it came off the car,” Warchock said. “Police have to catch the bad guy with the converter and match it up to the exact cut. Short of that, there’s no numbers on them.

"Once they’re removed from the car and they got away with that portion, there’s no way to confirm it.”

The money involved isn't great: Officials speculate that a 200-pound manhole cover might be worth about $18, a catalytic converter from a car might be worth between $70 and $80 and a pound of steel might be worth just 7 or 8 cents. But the ease of the crime balances that, Warchock said.

People who have the catalytic converter stolen from their car won’t be looking at an easy thing to replace, either.

Terri Miller, director of Help Eliminate Auto Theft in Michigan, said repairing a vehicle that's had its catalytic converter stolen can cost thousands of dollars. She said usually the thief would simply hack out most of a vehicle’s underbelly in order to get the piece off, which contains valuable metals like platinum, rhodium and palladium.

Some local scrap metal recyclers are already on the lookout for these hard-to-trace components.

Tom Schoolcraft, owner of Select Metals Recycling, called the rash of thefts of scrap metal “a terrible situation” and said he and his employees are very wary of anyone who comes in with a catalytic converter.

Schoolcraft said his main sources of catalytic converters are muffler shops and customers that he’s gotten to know well. But when someone comes in with a large number of catalytic converters, or is someone that isn’t familiar, he usually refuses to buy their materials.

“We always ask them, where’d you get it, what are you doing with it,” he said. “We don’t pull any punches here. My lead guy says that if it’s stolen, this is the last place you want to bring it. We try to stand firm and make sure there’s justice.”

Relationships between the police and scrap metal dealers have been growing in recent years, mostly thanks to the Nonferrous Metal Regulatory Act of 2009 .

Schoolcraft pointed to, a website that allows police to notify all scrap metal dealers within 100 miles of an incident to be on the look out for certain items that have been stolen. He said he will often look at the site and the descriptions of suspects in order to be aware of stolen items that could come into his shop.

Schoolcraft said scrap metal dealers were always looked at as “bad guys” before the laws were enacted because they were seen as one of the reasons that people were stealing metal. He described the attitude as, “You’re buying it, that’s why they’re stealing it.”

The new law, which requires scrap metal dealers to keep records of each sale for at least one year, participate in a theft-tracking database and pay sellers by a traceable method, has allowed dealers to become a part of the solution.

“Our main goal is to have a legitimate business and any way we can deter the thieves out there, we’re all for it,” Schoolcraft said.

Some of the other popular items that have been stolen recently are copper wiring and piping from houses, aluminum siding and equipment from local parks.

Radzik said stealing metal for scrap has been prevalent during the last year to 18 months, but seems to have gotten worse recently. He said the township has been losing manhole covers off public roads, playground equipment, picnic tables and benches from parks — even things that are bolted down.

He pointed toward the Liberty Square condominium complex as a prime area where thieves have gone to steal scrap metal. Radzick said township officials have had to board up 15 or 20 units in that complex in the past week because doors have been kicked in so pieces of the homes can be looted for scrap metal.

In addition, the former developer has admitted in court he ripped aluminum siding off the sides of some of the buildings to sell for scrap.

Radzik said it’s important for anyone victimized by this kind of crime to report the incident to police. Even if it’s not a large amount of stolen property or of high monetary value, it still may lead to information that will allow criminals to be apprehended.

“It’s important to report these losses to the police and as the police process the reports, they can identify the trends and patterns where they’re occurring,” he said.

Miller agreed, and encouraged the community to keep a sharp eye on their cars and property, as well as their neighbors.

“If you see suspicious vehicles, write down the license plate number, especially a van because they can conceal the catalytic converters,” she said. “They’re not going to take just one, they’re going to take five, six or 10 while they’re at it.”

Anyone who has information on catalytic converter thefts can call Michigan HEAT at 1-800-242-HEAT. Information leading to the arrest of a converter thief can bring a reward up to $10,000.

Kyle Feldscher covers cops and courts for He can be reached at or you can follow him on Twitter.


Wolf's Bane

Sat, Sep 10, 2011 : 3:05 p.m.

This is nothing new, I'm afraid. Take a look at Detroit and you'll note that many of the classic and historic buildings there have been pillaged and gutted. Given the "double tip" recession and our fearless leaders in Lansing, these type of property crimes will only increase as local municipalities can't afford to guard vacant or abandoned buildings. Materials scrappers love: Aluminum, brass, steel, iron, copper, marble, granite, pewabic tile, antique light fixtures, sandstone, and wooden frame windows. Ebony, oak, maple, and flooring, you'll routinely see materials, including fixtures, hardware etc. for sale at "salvage" or architectural vintage shops throughout the metro Detroit area. It is an underground industry that will not stop very easily.


Fri, Sep 9, 2011 : 7:41 p.m.

Well with Snyder and the compassionate Republicans putting a four year lifetime limit on people collecting welfare, its game on for more of this kind of stuff.

dading dont delete me bro

Fri, Sep 9, 2011 : 5:09 p.m.

looks like they missed some there at liberty square. i might have to get over there.


Fri, Sep 9, 2011 : 3:58 p.m.

I think there is a scrap "fence" somewhere in this area. All the scrap yards around here are very strict with the rules. If you are stealing scrap for money you couldn't afford to go far. The only answer is someone taking scrap as trade (for Drugs?) then taking it to a yard out of this area to cash in.


Fri, Sep 9, 2011 : 3:15 p.m.

When I worked for a property management company in Ypsi people ( non-residents )used to dump their junk by the dumpsters.I just let all the metal sit.Scrapers would take it away within a day or so.


Fri, Sep 9, 2011 : 3:12 p.m.

Right now it is either law or standard procedure that ANY copper scraps brought in, you don't get cash $, you get a check so that if it turns out to be stolen, its more traceable. Why not do that with ALL metals?

Woman in Ypsilanti

Fri, Sep 9, 2011 : 3:06 p.m.

When I was a kid, I used to sometimes go along with my grandfather who would drive all over town and garbage pick metal objects that he would sell for scrap later. I can think of all kinds of legitimate reasons for someone to be selling their scrap metal and that makes it more difficult for the scrap yards to recognize a thief. I wonder how much of this is desperation., I mean, it can't be easy to steal a manhole cover that weighs a couple of hundred pounds and for less than $20? It seems to me that it would be easier to get a job and that only someone who can't get a job would even bother with such a thing.

Not from around here

Fri, Sep 9, 2011 : 3:24 p.m.

not to justify it but how long would it take to load up a manhole cover, 10 minutes? $20 x 6 per hour=$120 an hour, not bad pay! There really is no need to gather scrap illegally. There is always plenty of people will to pay people that they are not willing to do. I made a pretty pennie supplimenting my income this way in the past and, due to financial need, plan on doing more in the future. Anyone need a driveway re-sealed?


Fri, Sep 9, 2011 : 2:58 p.m.

Lets do it legal, no need to come here. (to steal) We called a man that had a sign up in Sumpter Twp. (we pick up scrap metal). He came within the hour and picked up all the scrap we had ready. (an engine, swing, weed eater ect) he got a good load.


Fri, Sep 9, 2011 : 2:46 p.m.

@Jobo - Junk yard, scrap dealers...its recycling! It is typically bought by a scrape dealer who grinds it into small pieces and then sells it off eventually to steel/metal companies who melt it down and use it again in future metals. It's really a great system and good for the environment. ... There are a million legitimate reasons to be scrapping metal. If you replace the siding from a house, you want to scrap the old siding. Its hard to tell the difference between stolen siding and legitimately replaced siding. Also, yes, these scrap pieces are usually mixed in a whole truck load of scrap. There's tons of stuff you can scrap...a lot of it you can legitimately obtain for free (people giving away old appliances, people wanting things out of their basement) or garbage pickers that pick through the trash on the side of the road/in dumpsters looking for old lamps to take away for the metal. It isn't a glamorous job, but it does help the recycling system!


Fri, Sep 9, 2011 : 2:45 p.m.

FYI: 99% of the scrap metal yards will not purchase items that are obviously stolen and they do cooperate with police. They are not interested in fencing stolen merchandise as they make plenty of money legitimately. Scrap yards are heavily regulated and do not need any additional government regulations.


Fri, Sep 9, 2011 : 9:02 p.m.

Absolutely right. To sell metal you must have state issued MI ID, leave a thumb print, and sign a form swearing you obtained the scrap legally. Who else besides gun dealers or pawn shops have to check their customers that closely? Short of submitting to lie detector test each time I'm not sure what more can be done to insure against dealing with thieves.


Fri, Sep 9, 2011 : 2:36 p.m.

One good thing about metal thieves is that they now have a skill that could be used by demolition companies. This would be great training for the 72 people in Washtenaw County who are losing Welfare Benefits in October. Yes, their children can learn this skill also! There are plenty of building to be torn down in the county and in Detroit to keep everybody busy for a while.

Charlie Brown's Ghost

Fri, Sep 9, 2011 : 2:17 p.m.

I don't know how people with copper rain gutters sleep at night these days.

Not from around here

Fri, Sep 9, 2011 : 2:47 p.m.

Copper brass and Bronze is huge money, so is scrap and junk silver. Lots of computer boards contain gold that can be removed relativly easily. I always keep my eyes open when I'm walking or driving along. Another tip, keep a cold chisel in your car during the winter. When I wash the salt of my car in the winter, it check the bay for quarters left on the machines because the previous user left them there while they were washing there car and they ended up freezing in place. last year I pulled $6 off of one ledge that the previous user had left when they froze!

Jojo B

Fri, Sep 9, 2011 : 1:35 p.m.

Continuing the thought above, who the heck are the buyers and what do they do with all of these random pieces of old metal? What do they melt it into? I'm hoping authorities have thought of the obvious... investigating where the stolen metal goes and cracking down on the buyers. But it seems like police can't seem to get a grip on this. It's been a big problem in Detroit and has led to the destruction of many classic old buildings downtown.

Atticus F.

Fri, Sep 9, 2011 : 12:37 p.m.

Entire neighborhoods in detroit have been destroyed for a few hundred dollars worth of copper. were not to that point yet, but any abandoned property IS a target. I now install PEX piping and vinyl siding on all of my properties as a deterant. When theives see that, they usually move straight to the next house.


Fri, Sep 9, 2011 : 12:12 p.m.

So maybe the crimewave we've all been expecting has started, but it's mostly going unnoticed right now? Do bicycle thefts show up on the police theft maps? Those thefts are from $100 to $2000 each - why wouldn't that count as a property theft? Maybe Rich Kinsey can write a commentary on the typical progression of petty theft?


Fri, Sep 9, 2011 : 12:07 p.m.

I find it hard to believe that buyers of some of this scrap don't know that it is stolen. Especially things like man hole covers. I would hate to add more government but maybe scrap dealers need to be licensed and inspected. Anyone bringing in scrap should be required to provided identification that is recorded by the dealer.

Not from around here

Fri, Sep 9, 2011 : 2:42 p.m.

I think I can help you with this. I haul a little scrap myself. Generally there are two ways to haul scrap; by individual metal weight, like brass, copper and some of the more valuable metal, and "pot" metal (I don't know if that is the actual term for it or not-that what I've always called it). When I take a load to jackson, I seperate my brass and copper, if I have any, into 5 gallon buckets in the back of my truck. I load all of my Pot metal in my trailer, drive to Jackson and take the buckets into the building where it is individually weighed and I get my load slip. Then I haul all of my Pot metal over to the scales, they weigh me, my truck, my trailer and my cargo, I drive to a huge pile with the rest of the scrappers. I dump my trailer, drive backl to the scales, they weigh me again, do a little subtraction and cut me check. The yard is licenced and inspected and they do ask for identification. All of the pot metal, which also includes some non metal items is ground up, seperated and loaded on to box cars and sent to the coast where most of it is sent to china to make finished products. Interestingly you can make a lot of money this way. A few years back I took two 5 gallon buckets of brass, most of it picked up from a old shooting range that I got paid to clean up, to a scap yard on my way home and made over $100. I know a guy who's family has been in the scrap businesss for years and he makes more than six figures a year, after expenses. For the cost of a beater truck, a few hand tools and a cutting torch, it possible to legally make a lot of money from legal sites all over the place. And most of them will pay you to pick-up!

Len J Sunday

Fri, Sep 9, 2011 : 2:35 p.m.

Identification and a finger print is required.


Fri, Sep 9, 2011 : 12:16 p.m.

I'm thinking they take the service hole cover, cut it up some, and take that to a scrap dealer with a lot of other scrap. Then it doesn't look exactly like a service hole cover, and the dealer agrees to look the other way. Then they crush it with the rest of the scrap, and no one is going to tear apart a compressed cube of steel to see if there are service hole covers in there.