When people think about the illegal movement of goods, they think drugs, cash, maybe people. But copper?
Yes, the illicit copper trade is becoming a growing problem as buildings and highways are stripped of the lucrative metal.
Cooper is primarily used in utility wiring by power companies and telecom companies like AT&T. When a company stops using the copper wiring along a certain strip of highway or within an old building, it is often sold or stripped by unauthorized dealers.
"It's supply and demand," said Atlanta Police Lt. Mike Giugliano, who oversees the police effort to end the illegal copper trade in Atlanta.
Demand from China is "driving the price of copper now. So the recyclers are hungry for copper and the price keeps going up."
Copper recyclers aren't suppose to buy stolen goods, but it's hard to determine a stolen piece from a regular piece, and it's even harder to link a stolen piece of copper to the thief. The primary targets are abandoned churches, homes, old buildings, and defunct highway wiring.
Bruce Berman, a manager at a recycling company called Metro Alloys, said legitimate recyclers "are very proactive. We photograph all of the material we get, the vehicle it comes in and the sellers... But it can come in so co-mingled that it's hard to sort out," he said.
Copper stripped of its insulation is a clue that it could be stolen, or, "if a homeless guy comes up with a Herby Curby full of air conditioner coils, that's a clue," said Giugliano.
Law enforcement are forcing recyclers to check IDs and paying with something other than cash to help minimize the problem.
"It's a global market," said Maria Strollo, a lobbyist for metal companies. "They can just put it in a container and ship it straight to China."