As scrap metal thefts across the country rise with the price of copper, brass and other metals, police chiefs are backing a bill aimed at making it tougher for thieves to turn stolen metal into cold cash.

As scrap metal thefts across the country rise with the price of copper, brass and other metals, police chiefs are backing a bill aimed at making it tougher for thieves to turn stolen metal into cold cash.


The bill, sponsored by state Sen. James Timilty, D-Walpole, would require pawnbrokers and secondhand goods dealers, including scrap metal yards, to track their sales, making it easier for police to investigate thefts.


It is an idea local chiefs say is overdue.


"That's a great idea," Hudson Police Chief Richard Braga said. "We have seen items stolen that, generally, for years had been left out behind companies, and every month or every couple months they would get together and sell for scrap.


"Now we're seeing people coming to places under cover of darkness and stealing scrap metal."


In recent years, Braga said, the town has seen cases where people made off with large spools of copper wire, and one local business that specializes in automobile brake parts was hit, with thieves making off with wheels, rotors and other metal brake parts.


"The more valuable this stuff becomes, the more the communities are going to have to do to react to it," Braga said.


On balance, Milford Police Chief Tom O'Loughlin said, the idea of tracking scrap metal sales makes sense.


"We're going to make a guy who's coming in to sell an iPod that's worth maybe $100 give an ID" at a pawnshop or secondhand store, he said.


By comparison, O'Loughlin said, one recent scrap theft in Milford totaled more than $10,000, but it is likely the thief could sell the goods to a scrap yard without showing an ID or saying where he got the material.


"The value of metals has gone up so dramatically, they know they can offload it very quickly," he said.


Scrap metals such as the spools of wire used by utility companies have become such a recognizable target that the companies are now telling police where the spools are.


"If they leave a spool somewhere they let us know," O'Loughlin said. "At least you can keep an eye on it, you can flag it, so if you see someone over there it's more apt to grab your attention."


In the first four months of this year, Westborough Police Chief Alan Gordon said his department made about a half-dozen arrests related to scrap metal thefts from National Grid.


The town's many car dealerships also have been targeted.


In several cases, Gordon said, thieves slipped into car lots and cut the catalytic converters - which contain platinum and other precious metals - from the cars.


"The dealership wouldn't know it until they go out and try to start the car and it sounds like a tank," he said.


While he said he supports Timilty's bill, Gordon believes there will always be some scrap dealers who try to skirt the law.


"Reputable places already do that," he said about the proposal to track sales by requiring an ID. "They already keep records of who comes in. It's the ones that aren't reputable - even if you make a law, they're still going to try to skirt it."


When it comes to policing those dealers, Gordon said, the proposed law would be invaluable, because it would give local authorities the power to shut down dealers who don't keep proper records, and subsequently dry up the market for thieves.


"When you get somebody who's violating, you can shut them down," he said. "Now, they claim ignorance, they have no idea the stuff was stolen, so it's incumbent on you to prove they had to know it was stolen.


"If (people) can't fence it very easily, it's going to cut down on that as a lucrative business."


Peter Reuell can be reached at 508-626-4428, or at preuell@cnc.com.


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