Metal theft: a war of attrition

Utilities are being hit by metal thefts – and so are many other sectors. Industry members considered their response at a Utility Week roundtable supported by Pitney Bowes Software. Janet Wood reports.

Scrap metal dealers can no longer pay cash – no questions asked – and provide a market for opportunist metal thieves, thanks to legislation passed last month.

That was the good news that the Energy Network Association’s (ENA’s) Tony Glover passed on to utility executives at last month’s roundtable. What is more, he said he expected that other measures to tighten regulations around that industry would probably be on the statute book by the end of the year.

However, although attendees thought this would help address a multi-billion pound problem, they were united in saying that it would address just one group of thieves.

The scale of the problem

The delegates had tales of large-scale and organised metal theft, where the thieves came equipped not just with high-vis jackets and similar livery to legitimate workers, but also specialist equipment (also stolen) and sophisticated intelligence about the target company’s security procedures. Some did not take the scrap metal dealer route – it was loaded straight into containers and shipped overseas.

Frazer Argos-Farrell, vice president at Marsh Risk Consulting, passed on some experience from other sectors also affected, including property and retail but spreading much wider.

Dyan Crowther, director of operational services at Network Rail, said her company had realised it had to move from dealing with crimes to deterring them. Network Rail now has a strategy that encompasses engineering measures to catch and deter thieves, enforcement, education – including of the company’s own workforce – and enabling a company response in the form of sharing good solutions and having a single person with responsibility for the issue.

Crowther was keen to stress that the company response should be around the impact of theft on customers, not the fact of each single theft. She showed how the company had altered its operations to react faster to incidents and “get things moving again” as fast as ­possible.

The delegates agreed that the associated costs should be recognised, such as the costs of people being off supply or other­wise inconvenienced, cleanup and repair costs (transformers are drained of oil so the material inside can be taken, for example), extra security and so on.

They should also be publicised: Network Rail now informs passengers when their train has been delayed by metal theft, and other industries have followed suit, dispelling the suggestion that this is a “victimless crime”. The publicity also serves as a warning to potential thieves and an opportunity for “whistleblowing”. Some companies have found Crimestoppers a useful partner.

Pulling together

The group shared information about how to work best with local police forces. At its simplest, this involves forming personal relationships with officers and reporting crimes with associated costs included, to ensure any punishment better fits the crime. But insights were shared about how to present impacts in a way that matched police targets – showing the community impact, especially on vulnerable people, for example.

Ian Broadbent of Pitney Bowes Software was able to share experience not just of using different types of software to predict activity and direct resources, but also insights from his time as an analyst within a police force.

The group talked about how to share information and it was clear that there was still work to do to find the best way to do that. There were thousands of incidents every year and data input, for example, by engineers on site may not match the reports needed by other ­stakeholders.

What is clear is that it is not just the utility industry that needs to work together to deal with this issue. On occasions a wave of thefts will occur in one location, hitting several sectors, and as one sector takes action the thefts simply switch to another. Sharing intelligence and taking concerted action are required to get a step ahead in what is a war of attrition.

This article first appeared in Utility Week’s print edition of 1 June 2012.

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