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Theft of Metal - overview

by Rowena14. October 2013 10:24

   The high world prices for new and scrap metals have greatly increased their attraction to thieves resulting in metal theft from all sorts of locations/premises. Whilst thieves have traditionally always targeted Non-Ferrous Metals (NFM) such as copper, lead, tin and related alloys, e.g. brass and bronze; current high values mean that traditionally less attractive NFM such as aluminium, and ferrous metals such as iron and steel (stainless and mild) are now often a target.


What is at risk?

    Metal theft is no longer confined to the contents of buildings and yards, as was often the case in the past, but now extends to include parts of premises such as roofs, roof flashings, door hardware, boilers and plumbing, electric cables/sub-station components; premises’ gates, fencing, sculptures/statues, plus highway signs and drain/manhole covers.

   Historic buildings can be at particular risk, as they often incorporate considerable amounts of lead or copper roofing; and by their very nature empty buildings and construction sites are also at increased risk.

   When part of a building's roof is stolen the costs of repairing consequent damage, e.g. following ingress of rainwater, plus coping with the disruption caused, can far exceed the cost of the stolen metal itself.

   With many empty buildings not visited regularly, and typically also lacking remote monitored intruder alarm protection, they can be prone to a 'strip out' - where nearly all metal is removed by thieves, e.g. electrical cable/switchgear, pipework, radiators, flashings, and even structural steelwork. Such an event often results in massive collateral property damage, and in extreme cases the building may be rendered unsafe, or be deemed beyond economic repair, and will need to be demolished.

Signs of damp or water ingress may provide an early indication of an otherwise un-noticed theft of roofing or roof flashings, and so should always be promptly investigated.



   Subject to its availability, insurance is one means by which financial recompense for losses may traditionally be provided. In this regard you should ensure that:

  •  Any insurance cover and related sums insured are adequate
  • All insurer conditions relating to premises security are fully observed

   In the event of metal theft, careful consideration needs to be given as to whether it is replaced at all, replaced in smaller quantities, replaced with something less attractive/valuable or, if replaced like for like, is provided with enhanced security. If you don't consider your replacement strategy in such terms it is likely you will suffer a repeat loss.

   Of course, insurance isn't a substitute for adequate security and, depending on individual circumstances, may either not be available at all or at economic cost.


Risk Assessment

  •  Take note of what metals you have, where they are located, their likely values/attraction to thieves and the possible impact of their loss
  •  Consider how they currently are, or might be better, protected



   When considering current/future security, it can be helpful to think of it in terms of 'layers' of protection, each layer needing to be overcome by thieves before they achieve their aim. Good security is usually achieved by having a complementary range of security measures in place at each 'layer' and overall.

1st Layer - Physical Security
Hindering access/removal of metals has to be a priority; but protecting contents is a simpler task than protecting a structure or items in the open. For each of these areas consider:

a)    Preventing theft of items within a building:

   Store metals in areas of robust construction, with access doors and windows kept in good condition and suitably secured. If in doubt seek the advice of a competent locksmith, e.g. one who belongs to the Master Locksmiths Association.

   Also think about further restricting access to items within by

  • Locking internal doors.
  • Creating an especially secure inner area, e.g. stockroom, store or cage.

b)   Preventing theft of parts of the building:

Lead/copper roofs, flashing, gutters and down pipes are common targets, so consider:

  • Hindering access to the roof by installing barbed/razor wire along roof edges &/or anti climb spikes to down pipes, etc
  • Painting down pipes and roofing with non-setting paint, sometimes called 'anti climb' paint to deter/hinder access

To help avoid any legal liability issues that may otherwise arise, such security measures should be installed above 2.5 m in height with suitable warning signs displayed.

c)    Preventing theft of items in the open:

   It is best to avoid external storage; but where unavoidable consider robust fencing/gates, with suitable locks, and also telescopic posts across vehicular access points. Items such as statues should be secured to a substantial well anchored plinth or other sub-structure.

2nd Layer - Human Surveillance
In some cases manned guarding may be appropriate, in which case ensure any contracted guards hold Security Industry Authority (SIA) licenses.

   In other cases any surveillance must rely upon any 'neighbours', who should be asked to inform you or the police of any unusual activity. In this regard ensure you

  • Provide suitable contact details.
  • Inform them of times when the premises will usually be in use, or open to visitors and, similarly, when you are/are not expecting contractors to be on site.
  • Use timer switches or dusk sensors to turn lights on and off at appropriate times, either all around the premises or in areas of possible concealment, e.g. porches.
  • Don't let hedges/shrubs grow to a size where they block views of the premises - and in so doing help to conceal thieves

 3rd Layer - Electronic Detection
An intruder alarm is a recognised means of detecting break-ins to buildings, but to be effective needs to have fully monitored remote signalling. Detecting theft of the building, or items in the open, can utilise battery powered wireless alarm systems, but a more effective solution usually requires remotely monitored CCTV.

4th Layer - Removing/Reducing Attraction
Thieves can't steal what's not there, so consider:

  • Reducing the level of metal stock held.
  • After any theft, or during refurbishment works, replacing metal roofing/flashing with materials unattractive to thieves, e.g. coated steel sheet, glass reinforced plastic (GRP), non-lead flashing or flexible (bitumised) felt.

Consult your property insurer(s) before replacing any metal roofing with felt or other combustible materials.

For all remaining metal fixtures consider:

  • Use of a forensic marking compound, e.g. Smartwater, or SelectaDNA's or Redweb's forensic 'gels' & 'greases'. These products are easily applied and bond to the metal surface. They are hard to remove and readily detected under ultra violet (UV) light. They can then be analysed to reveal the source address.
  •  Display notices/window stickers to advertise that items are 'security marked'

5th Layer - Recovery
The police are alert to the problem of metal theft, and many forces have special units/operations targeting metal theft. Many reputable scrap dealers are assisting the police, e.g. by using UV lights to check offered scrap metal for forensic marking.

   Even if stolen metal is recovered, the police may be unable to successfully prosecute those in possession of it, or return it to the true owners, without proof of ownership, so consider

  • Use of non-drying forensic 'gels' or 'greases', as these transfer and stick to thieves handling marked items
  • Taking photographs of historic items

In the event of a loss, photographs can also assist in restoration/establishing values


Key Action Steps 

  • Ascertain what you may have that is at risk of theft.
  • Review your current security arrangements and consider enhancements.
  • Seek independent crime prevention advice, e.g. from the police.
  • Source security devices and systems from reputable suppliers/contractors.
  • Be aware that security measures that may be regarded as damaging the fabric of a historic building, or changing its appearance, may require the consent of various planning/regulatory bodies.
  • Before proceeding with significant security enhancements, or changing a building material from metal (non-combustible) to a non-metallic material (which may be combustible), seek the advice/consent of your property insurer(s).
  • Review security in the event of any loss.