‘Metal bandits’ hit Secaucus Pinched appliances, scraps costing town money

Whenever the economy is bad it’s typical for people to look for ways to generate quick cash; beloved collectables get posted on eBay, Grandma’s jewelry may get sold off at the pawn shop.

With aluminum scrap metal selling at $1.19 per pound, these days both the enterprising and the desperate are on the hunt for old water heaters, boilers, and other heavy metal items to sell for a few dollars.

Locally this trend has lead to a new crime wave in Secaucus: thieves who go around town taking old refrigerators and stoves off of front yards on trash collection night. This may seem like a victimless crime – after all, the thieves are taking items the original owners have already discarded as trash. But Mayor Dennis Elwell said Secaucus taxpayers lose money every time someone drives off with an old washing machine or junked air conditioner.

“We have a town ordinance here that says once recyclables go to the curb they become town property,” Elwell said. “One of the ways we supplement the budget is by taking that scrap metal to the recycling centers and, whatever we get from that, we put into the Town coffers. With scrap metal being as high as it is, that averages about $750 to $1,000 a week.”

Within the past month Secaucus Police have issued one summons and two warnings to would-be “metal bandits,” as Elwell and others in the administration have dubbed them.

“If it were just one or two refrigerators, that wouldn’t be such a problem,” the mayor said. “But it has now become a big enough problem that we’re starting to notice it. And since we count on these items for revenue, it’s something we’re eager to stop.”

Fines for carting off with junked metals in Secaucus range from $100 to $1,000.

Secaucus is not the only town that has seen a spike in scrap metal theft. The New York Times reported recently that thieves across the Hudson River have stolen 2,500 manhole covers and grates within the past year. There were about 100 similar thefts in 2006 in New York City. And a local newspaper in Baltimore reported that a man burned to death in July after trying to cut through and steal copper wiring from an abandoned building he believed had no electricity; the copper turned out to be a cable of live wires.

The Secaucus Police Department is now prepared to use some decidedly big city tactics to snuff out this mini-crime wave.

“We’ve set up special patrols and sting operations,” Elwell said. “Since we have lists from the Department of Public Works of where [large metal appliances] have been placed on the curb, we’ve given these lists to officers on patrol and have asked them to keep an eye on these locations. And we’re actually probably going to set up a couple sting operations at some point.”

Construction sites are usually a popular hang out for metal bandits, who like to steal copper and bronze wiring and pipes, which fetch a higher price than aluminum. (Copper sells for $3.27 per pound.) However, according to Town Administrator David Drumeler, Secaucus has not had any copper thefts at the recreation center under construction on Koelle Blvd.

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