Trains delayed for hours, telephone lines and internet connections down - large scale theft of metal affects consumers and businesses alike. Now big companies have teamed up to catch the criminals together.
They usually come at night, when everybody else is sound asleep. At the darkest hour, they seek out railway property and tear the cables off power masts and signal poles. Elsewhere, the thieves may steal the cables from telecom providers. What they're after is copper, nonferrous heavy metal and scrap iron. Dealing in these raw materials has become a lucrative business; one ton of copper makes up to $10,000 (8,150 euros). At prices like these, it's no wonder that criminals are increasingly on the prowl for any raw materials they can lay their fingers on.
In most cases it's Deutsche Bahn, the company which provides almost all Germany's rail infrastructure, which feels the loss. In 2011 alone, 11,000 trains arrived late as a result of metal theft; altogether they accumulated 150,000 minutes of delays. Deutsche Bahn estimates the damage at around 15 million euros ($18.4 million). But it's not just the railways: the thieves also target telecommunication and electricity providers, as well as regular metal dealers. A number of the victims have decided that enough is enough, and they've joined forces to fight the threat. Earlier this month, Deutsche Bahn, Deutsche Telekom, the utility provider RWE and the Association of German Metal Dealers formed a security cooperation to confront the issue more effectively.
Early warning system for rapid information exchange
"During the past four or five years, theft has increased tremendously. And we've also seen that it's become more professional. It's now clearly moving in the direction of organized crime," said Philipp Blank of Deutsche Telekom. Over the past year, the company has registered 320 cases of theft, causing a loss of around 820,000 euros ($1 million), but more important is the interruption of customers' phone and data services. The hope is that the newly formed alliance will help: "Our aim is to set up an early warning system so that we can exchange information more quickly. After all, it's often the case that several thefts occur within the same region, and that not only one company is affected."
Another approach is to mark cables and the like with invisible, artificial DNA. Potential buyers would then be able to recognize stolen goods, and as the DNA easily attaches itself to anyone handling the materials, it's hoped that this will make it easer to catch the thieves. The companies also want to use helicopters to hunt them down, but efficient surveillance is a particular challenge to Deutsche Bahn, as its track network spans 34,000 kilometers (21,250 miles) all across Germany - a distance as long as one and a half times around the globe. "We employ 3,700 security personnel and we use infrared cameras to catch the criminals," said Jens-Oliver Voss, the company's head of corporate security.
Passengers not in danger
But Voss insists that there's no physical risk to passengers from metal theft. "If there is an incident, all signals turn red and all trains come to a stop," he says. Still, passengers do suffer, since their trains don't move, and they end up being late for work or their holiday flight. "That's particularly annoying," Voss said.
Deutsche Bahn has been using artificial DNA for some time - so far, mainly in eastern and northern Germany, as well as in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where thieves have been particularly active. Deutsche Telekom's Philipp Blank says that his company, too, is looking into whether to use the technology.
'Maximum security facilities'
A number of metal dealers have already increased their security to deal with the situation, according to the head of the Association of German Metal Dealers, Ralf Schmitz. "Our companies have invested a lot of money in new technology to improve security," he said. "By now, most company yards resemble maximum security facilities," with video surveillance, security personnel and fences.
But the crimes are now happening in broad daylight, too, according to Schmitz, and criminals don't hesitate to use violence. "Just recently, employees of one of our members were beaten up and robbed. In another case, armed robbers tied up the employees and made off with considerable amounts of copper," he said. It is assumed that most of the stolen goods end up in Eastern Europe or Asia.
Insurance fees going through the roof
The high number of thefts is making it more and more expensive for the companies to insure these metals. "Insurance fees have soared by 300 to 400 per cent," Schmitz said. And it remains a mystery how such large amounts of metal can simply disappear from such highly secured premises.
The new alliance also aims to inform potential buyers about what goods have been stolen, in an attempt to cut off the thieves from their market.
Police tied up in federal structure
The new security alliance is not meant to imply a criticism of police work, Schmitz said. "What is a problem, however, is the federal structure of the police in Germany. There is no central body that takes on these sorts of crimes. Instead," he said, "every state has a structure of its own."
Peter Hochscheidt of RWE said that, at his company, metal thefts have not yet led to any problems for the customers. And he has a special word of warning to the thieves: "If you're messing around with high voltage facilities, you're taking your life in your hands."
Author: Arne Lichtenberg / ag
Editor: Michael Lawton