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Dark Side of Housing Boom: Theft

The housing-development boom in the greater Phoenix area means more potential customers for telecommunications providers — but companies are also discovering that equipment deployed in those tracts is a lure for thieves.

Cox Communications Inc. estimates it has lost $160,000 in electronics and wiring since the beginning of this year.

“They take equipment in the pedestals and we find the theft when we go out to hook up the first customer,” said Farid Melki, Cox’s director of fixed-asset management.

TRUCKED OUT CABLE

The most brazen theft: Criminals broke into a construction yard, hooked up a two-wheeled trailer loaded with two full spools of cabling, and drove off with it, said Alan Saquella, manager of asset preservation for the Phoenix region.

“There’s no use for [the wiring] unless they’re building a system of their own,” he said of the thieves.

The cable operator is not the only theft victim. Thieves have even swiped the brass fittings from fire hydrants.

Cox and the other local utility and communications providers, such as Phoenix’s municipal electric utility, the Salt River Project and regional Bell operator Qwest Communications International Inc., have formed a task force, sharing information on their own losses in an effort to detect patterns, prevent future thefts and perhaps catch some of the perpetrators.

Cable executives said the events fall into three categories: burglars who may be former employees of contractors and are seeking equipment so they can cheaply bid a job somewhere; saboteurs; and metal salvagers.

The salvagers think they are stealing copper that they can resell. But even if they steal coaxial cable, it contains so little copper, sheathed in layers of plastic, that it’s really too labor intensive to strip out the metal, the Cox officials said.

“The thieves are not well-versed, we find,” Melki said.

But that doesn’t stop them from finding places where Cox leaves spools underground, digging up the supplies only to ditch them a short distance away, when they realize they haven’t found easily saleable goods.

Operators in other states such as California and Florida have been victimized by infrastructure thieves throughout the last decade. Phoenix is an attractive target now because of development (construction was launched on 60,000 new homes in 2005, with another 40,000 underway this year) and its proximity to Mexico.

HEADED TO MEXICO

The Cox officials believed some of the cable is transported into Mexico for telecommunications projects there. They estimated 75% of the stolen goods are taken for use in other telecommunications projects. Some of the goods have serial numbers, but those are labels that are easily stripped off, thwarting a trace on the materials, they added.

Cox created a 60-second spot to publicized the problem and offered a $10,000 reward for tips leading to arrests. The police department is also soliciting tips to its “Silent Witness” hotline. Telecommunications companies are also distributing flyers, in English and Spanish, to construction contractors and their workers, seeking help in battling the problem.

The cable company has hired a full-time investigator to fight the infrastructure thefts.