One man's trash truly is another man's treasure, judging from the number of scrap metal thefts in South Florida during the past five years, but the crackdown is well under way and its focus is on scrap yards.
"If, in fact, they do scrap some stolen property, it's much easier for us to track," Broward Sheriff's Detective Sgt. Craig Brown said.
Among the remedies being used to treat what's considered an epidemic: stronger state laws, more regulation, intelligence sharing and a scrap-tracking database.
Some scrap dealers, such as Sean Harrigan of Capital Scrap in Deerfield Beach, feel unfairly targeted.
"We're trying," he said. "We get a bad rap as a scrap yard because everybody thinks that everybody who's stealing air conditioning coils is selling them at scrap yards."
State Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, co-sponsored a law that took effect in July that holds secondary metal recyclers to the same standards as pawn shops.
Scrap merchants must pass a background check to be registered with state and local law enforcement, and submit to regular inspections. They must keep records and photographs of scrap transactions requiring sellers to provide identification, fingerprints and proof the scrap they brought in was theirs or they were contracted to dispose of it. Sellers must also be paid by check to discourage quick cash transactions.
"I don't need criminals coming in here," Harrigan said. "I make enough money without them."
Scrap dealers caught intentionally ignoring inspection requirements face a third-degree felony charge. Three or more offenses would upgrade it to a first-degree felony with prison time and fines.
"I've got to give credit to the state and the Legislature for doing a good job of keeping up or catching up," Brown said. "Major strides have been made in intelligence sharing and investigations and even redefining the statutes that's giving law enforcement more teeth."
When scrap metal thefts blossomed in Palm Beach County, Sheriff's Detective Alfredo Forgione got together with more than 60 other law enforcers to form the Metal Theft Coalition, which meets quarterly to discuss criminal trends and share intelligence and pictures of stolen goods.
The Regional Automated Property Identification Database, or RAPID, used by pawn shops to help police track stolen property, is starting to include scrap dealers. But its effectiveness is dependent upon the number of participants and a local government's willingness to pay for the service.
Brown admits chasing scrap metal thieves wasn't always a top priority of law enforcement.
"There was very, very little attention paid or resources devoted toward these types of crimes," he said. "In the last two or three years, in my estimation, it is certainly one of the fastest-growing crimes in South Florida."
The number of scrap yards registered with the Florida Department of Revenue statewide has more than tripled in five years, from 278 in 2008 to 911 as of August.
The number of registered scrap yards in Broward has grown from 18 to 56 during that time. Palm Beach County has gone from 11 to 28 and Miami-Dade scrap yards have increased from 21 to 102, according to the Revenue Department.
Capital Scrap is one of the biggest in Broward, Harrigan said.
"We want people to know we're a viable business to have in your community because it's providing a lot of cash into the local economy," he said. "We're employing some 50 people here and ultimately we're looking to better the economy and better the environment, not harbor criminals."
Harrigan said he pays 30 to 35 cents per pound for scrap metal.
But some scrap yards have evolved into profitable dumping grounds for what have become precious metals, sometimes on par with gold and silver.
Thick copper cables are worth an estimated $10 per foot; copper pipes and wires stripped from air conditioners fetch $3 per pound; truck batteries average about $250 each; steel railroad plates about $8 per pound; palladium extracted from your car's catalytic converter trades for about $637 per ounce; steel in manhole covers was going for $450 a ton or up to $100 per sewer grate; brass in backflow valves ranges from 80 cents to $1.70 per pound, according to various government and industry estimates.
Local governments, businesses and homeowners are spending small fortunes replacing scavenged street lights, restaurant equipment and air conditioners.
Scrap metal thefts can be costly in other ways.
In September, Thelma Morrow, 52, of Fort Lauderdale, was killed in a car crash along a Miami street left dark by the theft of copper wiring from streetlights.
The worst offenders are not those you might think.
"It's not our homeless population at all," Brown said.
Those arrested for selling stolen metal are people who are legitimately contracted to collect and dispose of scrap, he said, but they can't resist the lure of easy money and gut air conditioners at foreclosed homes to add to the pile of scrap they were paid to remove from a construction site.
no requirement for them to be registered or licensed and law enforcement can't keep tabs on them, Brown said, so it's up to the victims and the scrap yards.
"We're not trying to reinvent the wheel here," he said. "If it looks suspicious, let us know."