AT&T Targets Copper Thieves in California

AT&T is stepping up its fight against copper thieves in California with a program to pay witnesses a bounty of up to $10,000 for information about people who steal wire from the company, including off its utility poles.

Stopping wire theft has always been a priority, but the company is increasing its efforts now, said Bill Chubb, AT&T vice president, core installation and maintenance, in a prepared statement.

Metal theft, especially that of copper, has risen dramatically as the economy has taken a downturn and as the price of metals has skyrocketed. Telephone companies have reported thefts and outages throughout the country as a result of scavengers.

Cable operators have been victimized, too, by thieves unaware that cable plant contains glass, not metal. For instance, an outage on Aug. 7 effecting about 15,800 Tillamook County, Oregon-area customers of Charter Communications was caused by vandals seeking copper, according to press reports. When the damage was located, the plant was found to have been cut into but not severed, leading to the conclusion that thieves were checking the core of the cable.

The price of scrap copper has risen from $1 a pound in 2004 to $3 a pound or more today.

AT&T is also supporting two bills, one in the California Senate and one in the state's Assembly, that would tighten rules regarding the sale of scrap metal.

The telco isn't the only provider announcing an anti-theft program this week. In Houston, bundled-services provider Embarq has teamed with CrimeStoppers of Houston to try to curb theft there.

Embarq estimates it has lost $130,000 due to plant thefts in the Texas market in the last 12 months. The partners are offering $6,000 for tips that lead to the identification, arrest and prosecution of plant thieves.

In 2007, Embarq launched similar bounty programs in two of the other markets is serves—Las Vegas and Warren, Ohio.