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Sharing metal

Tackling metal theft through information sharing and analytics; by Mark Gibson, Sales and Marketing Director, EMEA and AP, SAS Public Security.

Metal crime has reached epidemic proportions across the UK. The number of metal thefts is believed to have doubled in the past five years, with 60,000 offences taking place in the first ten months of 2011. An estimated 15,000 tonnes of metal was stolen in 2011 alone, much of it from railways and public buildings like schools and hospitals. The problem is believed to cost the British economy around £770 million a year – and it is getting worse – not least because of the rising price of copper; which since 2009 has doubled to currently stand at more than £5,000 a tonne.  

Aside from the cost to the UK economy, there is also a broader impact on communities, with places of worship particularly hard hit. The Ecclesiastical Insurance Group claims to have received more than 2,600 metal theft claims from churches during 2011 and estimates suggest that an average of seven churches a day across the UK are targeted for the lead in their roofs. Metal theft is also causing an increase in environmental health issues. Careless disposal of metal and other waste can be a serious pollutant, stealing metal from railway lines can put the lives of railway workers at risk and removing drain covers creates a risk of fatality for road users and pedestrians. Kent, Nottinghamshire and Lancashire are among the worst hit areas for metal theft. The problem is also serious in the North-East of England where the charity, Crimespotters, has just launched an initiative urging local people to provide vital information about offences in the area.

However, if they are going to tackle it effectively, the authorities need to treat metal crime as a national issue rather than a local one. This is a serious and highly-organised crime and the criminals are happy to travel extensively to find the scrapyard or dealer prepared to pay the highest price for their stolen goods. How can the authorities tackle this increasingly urgent issue? They would no doubt have been encouraged by Theresa May’s announcement of proposed legislation to prohibit cash payments for scrap metal. If implemented, this move will significantly disrupt the criminals’ supply chain and stop them from offloading the stolen metal.   

However, the police, with the newly created Waste and Metal Theft Taskforce, must also take action to counter the threat. In doing this, the key is how effectively they gather information and convert it into actionable intelligence. The first priority should be to collate information from all the known metal thefts across the UK. This will involve information gathering and information sharing from all police forces and investigative agencies around the country. Many of these have already been initiating this process by actively encouraging the public to report incidences of metal theft to them.   

Once all relevant data has been collected and collated, the new force then needs to start to profile individuals who are either known to have been involved or are suspected of involvement in this type of crime. This will give them an insight into typical characteristics of people likely to be connected to metal theft but also the kinds of criminal networks that link these individuals. The force then needs to profile not just individual cases but all metal theft crimes as a general group and the ‘modus operandi’ used in carrying them out. Criminals are creatures of habit and the crimes they commit are likely to have many common threads. Technology and analytics software can be instrumental in helping uncover patterns between crimes and establishing whether crime clusters are likely to have been caused by one person or many individuals acting separately.

It is important to highlight too that their use can extend well beyond the initial crime to encompass the wider supply chain that supports the criminal activity itself. In this context, cross-border information sharing can play a part in helping police and agencies like the Waste and Metal Theft Taskforce to pinpoint scrapyards and dealers that have a record of collusion in this type of crime. Analytics technology, both text and structure data related, can then risk-assess individual scrapyards as to the likelihood that they might get involved in this type of activity. So while the challenge of metal theft continues to grow and look increasingly onerous for those charged with fighting it, there is room for optimism in the tools and technologies that are now coming on stream to help the authorities effectively tackle this growing threat.


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