Lives were put at risk when coastguards’ communications were cut off for a 36-hour period in the latest example of the disruption caused by a spate of metal thefts… but unfortunately these attacks aren’t rare – Lighting from over a mile-long stretch on the way into Leeds on the M1 motorway has been stolen and cable has even been stolen from Stansted airport recently. Electricity sub-stations, BT and road infrastructure are now being targeted by metal thieves in what is reported to cost the UK economy over £1 billion per year.
By John-Paul Rojas – Telegraph.co.uk
Volunteers manned the coastline along the Solent day and night with back-up radios to ensure calls were handled, after thieves cut off aerial signals by stealing cable. Meanwhile in an example of the damaging effect of the thefts, police and ambulances have had to send patrols out to villages whose landlines were cut by criminals. Stranded from 999 services, those needing emergency help were told to flag down the vehicles if they needed help. Gangs have also targeted the Airwave radio communications system used by emergency services across the country. Criminals are in addition believed to be stealing British Telecom vans so they can pose as legitimate telecoms workers and rip out cables overnight.
Luke Beeson, head of BT’s security, told the Times: “They are following existing BT operations, where we set up roadworks [during the day]. They would come in overnight and continue working under the cover of existing operations. “That’s why we know that [the problem] has moved into the serious organised crime arena, because it’s seen as a low risk and lucrative crime. “They are moving from holding up banks to nicking copper because the penalties are lower.” Mr Beeson said the phone outages were also causing “quite frequent” disruption to the 999 emergency system. Earlier this year, villagers in Wiltshire whose landlines were cut off were advised to flag down an emergency vehicle if they needed urgent help. The crime spree is also causing chaos on the rail network, with up to eight attacks every day, which have caused about 240,000 minutes of delays so far this year. Detective Sergeant Chris Hearn, of the British Transport Police metal task force, which is leading the response to the crisis, warned that lives were being put at risk. He told the Times: “The more of this sort of incident we get, then ultimately, it becomes a percentage game. They are obviously endangering lives.” Increasingly sophisticated gangs are turning to the internet for intelligence, using Google Maps and Google Earth to locate sources of metal. Some are even believed to be using the advance warning given to train passengers of engineering work to see where cable might be left. The Serious Organised Crime Agency has begun to investigate whether criminals are exporting stolen metal abroad, with soaring demand on the international market pushing up the price of copper and other commodities in recent months.
Thieves have also been targeting war memorials for their metal plaques. Police have been stepping up measures to tackle the problem. Last month officers in Lincolnshire threw a “ring of steel” around Horncastle after the market town was blighted by metal thieves targeting churches, village halls, nurseries, schools, and isolated homes and businesses.