Thieves target vacant homes for easy access to scrap metal

Published: Saturday, July 13, 2013 2:49 p.m. CDT • Updated: Sunday, July 14, 2013 6:01 p.m. CDT
Caption
(By Matt Piechalak - mpiechalak@shawmedia.com)
A home in the 1600 block of South 51st Court in Cicero that was recently stripped by thieves looking for scrap metal. The number of vacant homes in Berwyn and Cicero have made such crimes commonplace.

You hear the sound of pounding and a lot of racket coming from the vacant residence next door. You wonder, “Maybe someone bought the place and they started remodeling?”

Then, you look at the clock: It’s 3 a.m.

Vacant residences, of which there are many in Berwyn and Cicero after the collapse of the housing market, have become easy targets for scroungers and scrap dealers who creep in and bust through walls to get at the copper water lines, yank radiators from the floors and take anything else that has value.

A cast iron radiator can cost anywhere from $300 to $1,000 depending on quality and age. At the scrap yard, a 125-pound radiator fetches between 7 to 11 cents a pound.

It means that the items are costly to replace, and fetch only a small amount for the thieves themselves. It does a lot of harm to the potential value of the building, and is an easy way for criminals to get cash.

Cicero Police Superintendent Bernard Harrison said that incidences involving vacant buildings are not at epidemic levels, but acknowledged there was a period recently when Cicero was averaging at least two vacant homes each week being hit.

Theives would effectively be cleaning the skeleton of the home: taking out copper, water heaters, radiators and what ever scrap metal they could get out of them.

“I would say almost all of it is going for scrap metal, even though we’ve been losing a lot of air conditioner units, but it’s for the copper,” Harrison said. “For $ 2,000 worth of copper [and the labor It costs to install it], they’re getting $25 to $30 as scrap metal.”

Choosing a vacant building as a potential motherload of metal is an easy decision for criminals, he said.

“The bad guys are looking for the houses with a board up or real estate signs or bank signs – anything that helps them know the building is vacant,” Harrison said.

Harrison added that police spend time on patrol looking for anything suspicious, such as trucks parked in alleys. But it still isn’t enough.

“We want residents to call us when they hear people knocking holes in the walls next door,” Harrison said. “[Thieves are in the building] beating the place up at 3 a.m. – that’s’ when a lot of it is happening. We need help outside of the station: It’s costing somebody a heck of a lot of money, and [your home] could be next.”

Harrison added that scrap yards in the area are monitored, as well. The problem is, he said, scrap thieves are going out of the area to sell their stolen goods.

Cicero police soon will better track stolen goods, including stolen metal, using the Law Enforcement Agencies Data System (LEADS).

Jessica Shaeffer, logistics manager for Midwest Industrial Metals, 3030 N. Tripp Ave. in Chicago, said she is familiar with the problem of shady scrap.

However, her company doesn’t buy scrap from the public partially due to the fact it deals in high volume, but also to stay away from potentially stolen scrap.

“We do have some people come by with suspicious loads,” she said. “We tell them we don’t buy from the public just to make it easy.”

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