Prices for metals have risen sharply in the past two years, making them increasingly attractive to criminals. In Germany, scrap yards, railroad tracks, even cemeteries have been targeted.
Rising prices have made scrap metal a valuable commodity
The Lilienthalstrasse cemetery is a calm, tranquil spot in the middle of Berlin. Its neatly manicured lawns serve as the final resting place for many soldiers who died during World War II, as well as others.
But this year, it was the scene of several crimes. In late January, thieves arrived during the night and tried to remove the copper roof from the cemetery's main crypt, hoping almost certainly to sell it for scrap metal.
Metal crypt fittings have made cemeteries a target for thieves
They were interrupted and didn't get away with the copper, but the roof was destroyed and its replacement will cost the city about 20,000 euros. Metal theft has become an expensive problem for Berlin.
"It's always up and down here in the cemeteries regarding theft - it depends on the metal prices," a caretaker at the cemetery told Deutsche Welle. "Often things on gravestones, like bronze vases or birds or letters, just disappear. It's getting worse."
During the financial crisis, metal prices were low and the number of thefts dropped. But over the past two years, the prices for a pound of copper or aluminum have almost doubled and could climb even higher as the global economy improves.
Metal has become much more attractive for thieves looking to make a quick profit. It is a tempting target since it's often outdoors, unguarded in places like cemeteries or building sites or even on train tracks.
Thieves tried to pry off this copper roof in a Berlin cemetery
German rail company Deutsche Bahn has been hit hard by the wave of metal theft. Last year it pressed charges in 821 theft incidents, almost double the number it did the year before.
Thieves often cut down the overhead electrical lines that power the company's trains, or grounding cables and metal fittings. Some, however, are even more ambitious and, in a few instances, have stlolen entire stretches of track.
"There are professionally organized gangs who use heavy equipment, hydraulic technology, and can get away with a lot of very heavy metal," Martin Walden, Deutsche Bahn's spokesman for infrastructure matters, told Deutsche Welle.
"They don't limit themselves to taking smaller parts. For example, they might steal complete reels of cable that we have at different locations."
While thefts are expensive for the company, they also affect customers since stolen metal results in service interruptions such as delays or cancellations. Last year, about 8,500 trains were delayed or had to be rerouted because of missing metal parts. The company said the problem has not improved this year.
Some thieves have stolen entire stretches of train track
Deutsche Bahn now stamps imprints on as many of their metal parts as they can, hoping that might deter thieves from taking the material to scrap dealers to sell. But many industry experts suspect many thieves simply take their booty across the border.
"We assume that when these materials are stolen in bigger quantities, they're taken out of the country," Ulrich Leuning, head of the BDSV association representing more than 500 scrap dealers in Germany, told Deutsche Welle.
"The possibilities are better for selling it because scrap as a rule can be taken across the border with little or no problem. In Germany, it's harder to sell scrap if you can't reveal the origin of it clearly," he said.
Many scrapyards have installed expensive security systems to discourage thieves
While scrap dealers have become more careful about whom they buy from, they also face their own problems with theft. For thieves, a scrap yard with valuable metal piled up neatly waiting for shipment is often too good to pass up. Over the past few years, many businesses have installed alarm systems or posted security guards to protect their property outside of opening hours.
"Because scrap yards often have a good deal of valuable material on hand, at this point they have to be guarded as closely as, say, jewelry stores," Leuning said.
Sizing up the sellers
In an industrial area in southern Berlin, one scrap yard decided it had to do something about the theft problem. After being broken into twice, and once having an entire loaded truck stolen, the owner installed an extensive alarm system and posted warning signs around the premises.
Now when sellers come, they have to show identification and fill out and sign a form with every transaction declaring they got their metal through legal means.
A barrel full of metal can be a worth a lot of money
Scrap dealers do this for their own protection since tax authorities have clamped down on businesses buying metal that looks like it might be stolen.
"We look very carefully at the people who come to us. If we don't like them, we give them a real crappy price so they'll just go away," a scrap yard owner told Deutsche Welle. "Because we can really get in trouble dealing with these guys. You learn after a while."
But if metal prices keep climbing, it is likely thieves will just bypass the German scrap dealers and continue to head for the border.
Officials and businesses realize this, and now professional associations, the Deutsche Bahn, and German police authorities are working with their European neighbors, hoping to convince scrap dealers there to be more careful about who they buy metal from and deter those criminals hoping to make quick profits from hot metal.
Author: Kyle James
Editor: John Blau