Metal recyclers

You can say what you want about recycling thieves, but they are actually out there doing real work. It’s illegal, yes, but they work up a sweat using tools, which is more than you can say for just about every other thief out there. In fact, most of the time they’re lugging around heavy buckets of metal or big pieces of things that take two or three people to lift. This kind of work isn’t for the credit card guys or the sneaky pickpockets.

Occasionally, of course, I meet a recycler who got into it because they heard it was a quick way to make some money. Usually these kind are the drug addicts looking for a quick $40. They’re way over their heads, though. One guy tried doing it with his stolen bike and the two-wheel kid carrier on back. That thing really can’t carry the weight and bulk you need to be successful at this. Plus, it marks you as an amateur when you pedal up to the counter to sell stuff. No, what you need is a big panel van so you can hide your stolen stuff while you drive around and collect more. I’m not handing out tips, here folks. I’m just reporting how it’s done.

Like most thieves, the metal recyclers specialize. They may take up something new if the place where they sell their stuff hints about a need for more aluminum wiring or whatnot, but basically they know what they’re doing and they go get it. There’s also a little bit of common sense here. Recyclers are getting pressure to stop taking certain kinds of stuff so knowing your market for stolen metal is important. Plus, metal is kind of a specialty. You don’t want to spend hours stealing pipes and chopping them up in your backyard just to find out the recycler doesn’t take that kind of metal alloy. If you specialize you know what to look for and you don’t waste your time on junk.

Supposedly metal theft is a booming business. If you look on the internet you find all kinds of crazy info like an increase of 227% over five years and thousands of brass fittings ripped out of fire hydrants. This kind of thing isn’t limited to the U.S. either. Some crazy Russian guy recycled an entire metal foot bridge east of Moscow all by himself. He used his work truck to rip it out and he chopped it up at home to sell as scrap. Then earlier this year metal thieves in the Czech Republic used fake paperwork to steal a ten ton pedestrian bridge and some rail road tracks with the cops right there watching them. Ten tons is a lot of scrap metal, my friends.

So for some clarity’s sake, let me explain the kinds of metal recycling thieves you run into as a lawyer.


Like I hinted at above, these amateur recyclers are kind of foolish to get into the heavy lifting game. They are generally the hard luck types with all kinds of problems like drug addiction and homelessness that make it hard for them to compete. Now they suddenly think they can just grab some simple tools they probably stole to begin with and the world is their oyster. I mean metal stuff is all around, right? Just waiting for these guys to go grab it.

Wrong. It’s not that easy at all. Unless they have connections with special recyclers, heavy lifting capacity, and the machine shop tools to reduce stuff they are wasting their precious time and energy. I guess the exercise is good for them but they could make a lot more money begging at some busy intersection. Plus, begging doesn’t come with the risk of crushed fingers, really bad sheet metal cuts, and broken toes. There’s even a set of pictures out there on the internet of some amateurs who tried ripping off some electrical wiring but got electrocuted. It looks like it was a rough way to die.

Of course, you occasionally  run into an amateur who figured out how to use a crowbar to rip off brass plaques, statutes in cemeteries, that kind of thing. Sometimes they can figure out a way to crush and partly melt a brass statute enough to sell without raising any provable suspicions but the exceptions prove the rule. These amateurs screw up and get caught all the time.

Catalytic converter guys.

Nice load of stolen catalytic converters. Street value: $1,400.

Hey, doctors and dentists specialize so why shouldn’t metal thieves? These catalytic converter guys know exactly what they are doing and they do it with ruthless efficiency. It takes them two minutes or less with a cordless reciprocating saw and a good metal cutting blade. They can be even faster with one of those rolling dollies. The advantage of using a dolly is that it lets them move right down a row of cars in a parking lot without getting up. That’s the kind of efficiency that makes these guys a lot of money.

Catalytic converter thieves get about $100 for each converter when they sell them to a scrap yard. Why so much you ask?

You see, catalytic converters are expensive because they contain rhodium, platinum, and palladium. Those rare elements are used to clean the exhaust coming from your car’s engine which is important for our environment and every car is required to have a converter. There’s not much of each element in a catalytic converter, but rhodium sells for about $9,500 an ounce on the legitimate market, while platinum costs about $2,000 an ounce. You read that right. I didn’t add extra zeros. Catalytic converters are really expensive.

The scrap yards pay the recyclers a lot for the catalytic converters because the guy who got his converter ripped off last night can either pay about $900 at the dealership for a brand new one or $300 for a used one that looks suspiciously like the one that used to be underneath his own car. Which one would you pick if you had to? Maybe you say you would pick the new one for your Mercedes, but what about after the third or fourth time it’s happened?

Copper wire guys.

Small bucket of stolen copper wire. The guy must have been lazy or drunk or something.

Strangely, my experience has been that copper wire thieves don’t branch out into anything else. They are dedicated and zero right in on copper wire. Most of the time it’s residential or commercial stuff but the occasional power line attracts their attention. Sometimes they have to do some complicated electrical work to make sure the power is off, which may give some clue as to why these guys specialize. I’m not really sure, but I think at least some of the time they are electricians or had some background with electrical construction projects. Maybe it’s different where you live.

It can take work to rip it out, but there’s a lot of copper wire in the average house.

Anyway, they sneak into foreclosed houses and rip out all the wiring. They sometimes have to rip out drywall but two of them working with one upstairs and one in the basement or under the house can cut and rip a whole home in an hour. Insulated copper wire is selling for about $1.60 a pound. A really efficient crew can strip about 100 pounds out of a regular sized house. $160 bucks an hour isn’t too bad. If you hit an entire row of new construction in a neighborhood one night you could do something like eight houses. That’s $1,200 which even if split evenly with your helper isn’t too bad for one night’s work.

Copper wire guys can really hit the jackpot if they find a business or work site with huge rolls of copper cabling. An industrial roll can weigh half a short ton, or 500 pounds. At $1.6 a pound that comes to $800 per roll. If you can grab two or three you can make a couple thousand dollars.

Other copper wire guys with specialized electrical skills go after transformer boxes on electrical poles. I have no idea if there’s a black market for these things but there’s a lot of bare copper wiring in them. This brings me to the last issue related to copper. It’s more valuable and less easy to trace back to you if it’s melted down. Copper has a low melting point so some simple tools let you turn the stolen stuff into untraceable bricks of copper you can sell for a higher price than if it was still wrapped in plastic cabling.


They’re worth more whole than as scrap, especially if you’re a plumber by day.

Plumbers sometimes team up with the copper guys because it’s more efficient. They all hit the same house at the same time but the plumbing guys rip out all the fixtures and pipes. They particularly love the copper pipes and fittings for the scrap value but they will take it all. Copper brings in the best prices but if they have connections with local plumbers they can sell the metal knobs, sinks, and toilettes for a lot of money. While the porcelain throne isn’t strictly metal, it’s sort of connected enough to include here.

Ripping out plumbing is hard work but I know for a fact that around here these guys can make several hundred dollars off each house, maybe more if it’s a really nice place. If you don’t believe me, go to a Home Depot some time and look at how expensive the faucets and sinks are new. Even if “used” stuff sells for a quarter of those prices the plumbers are making a lot of money. If you can do a couple of houses per night you can quit your day job. Or, and I’m just thinking out loud here, you could steal the stuff at night, clean it up, and get paid during the day to install it as a plumber as a “new” fixture in somebody’s house.


Your typical beer keg. Right, like you’ve never seen one before.

Yeah, beer kegs. Dealers will pay you about $20 each for them right now. They’re supposed to be worth $150 new. If you believe the beer industry, they are losing about 300,000 kegs each year and it’s costing them about $50 million. I’m not judging anyone here, but don’t they charge you a deposit when you pick up a full keg of beer? How they could they be losing money on this deal is a mystery to me, especially since the kegs are made of aluminum and aren’t worth $20 melted down. They’re more valuable if you sell them right back to the beer wholesalers to be reused for the next keg party.

Hey, doesn’t this almost sound like a good scam? I mean the beer wholesaler keeps the $100 deposit and then buys the keg back from a scrap dealer for maybe $40. They’re actually making more money than the thief who sells it for $20. Drunken college students everywhere should be outraged.

-Samuel Owen

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