Copper thieves put cell phone service at risk

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by CASEY NORTON

WFAA

Posted on October 14, 2010 at 5:08 PM

Updated Thursday, Oct 14 at 11:57 PM

FORT WORTH — Thieves have targeted dozens of cell phone towers across North Texas, stealing valuable cables.

Cellular providers say they've seen a dramatic crime increase as the price of copper is projected to hit $4 a pound by the end of the year, approaching an all-time high.

So criminals will steal almost anything connected to copper — including your cell phone service.

The thieves hit close to the ground, ripping out 20 to 30 pounds of copper wiring whenever they can.

"Any place there is a concentration of copper that can be obtained, we've seen people go to great risk in order to obtain it," said Fort Worth police spokesman Sgt. Chad Mahaffey.

When copper thieves hit cell towers, callers might be the first to notice. They can lose signal and service in the immediate area.

An AT&T spokesperson said that puts customers at risk, because they can't make any calls — not even to 911.

Verizon Wireless says any service interruption is an expensive repair, but preventing theft is even more costly. The company says a thief might get $100 selling copper from a cell tower, but it costs $3,000 to $4,000 for technicians to repair the damage.

Verizon said it has installed battery back-ups to limit service interruption and is putting in new security measures to prevent theft in the first place.

"We are working with these wireless providers in order to not only get these crimes reported, but also develop leads and suspect descriptions so we can prosecute these criminals," Sgt. Mahaffey said.

Police and wireless providers say the biggest risk is actually for the thieves. Jumping barbed wire fences is dangerous enough, but pulling high voltage wires can be deadly.

That's the risk these scavengers take.

Verizon says outages depend on the sites. All of their cell towers have battery back-ups, so when copper wires are cut, the system cuts over automatically and any outage is minimal during the switch-over.

Other carriers without battery back-up will lose service for that particular tower.

Verizon is installing new towers with better security and running the cables in new ways to prevent theft.

Fort Worth police say copper theft in general has seen a big jump this year compared to 2009. And if the price of copper goes up even more, so will the crime.

E-mail cnorton@wfaa.com

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