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Metal theft continues to be a national concern

Published: 21/03/12

As metal theft continues to rise, unoccupied properties are particularly at risk from the extensive damage caused by this criminal activity.

Aviva has spoken to Colin Davison from SitexOrbis who shares some insights and explains how a smart technology solution is helping to fight back.

Scrap metal thieves – from opportunists to gang members serving organised crime – will do almost anything to get to their prize, including risking their own lives. “The British Transport Police [BTP] has reported a 70% rise in copper theft from live railway lines in recent times,” says Colin. “The BTP is working with the UK’s Energy Networks Association [ENA] to highlight the seriousness of this crime.” In the past year, the ENA alone has reported more than 7,000 incidents, resulting in four fatalities and over 30 injuries.

To the victims of the crime, the loss of metal isn’t the only problem. Once a robber gets in, anything and everything goes that has a second-hand scrap value. Criminals don’t consider the implications of ripping out pipes and tearing off roofing sheets. “Unfortunate property owners often face costly bills due to structural and water damage,” says Colin. Aviva estimates that 75% of the cost of a typical metal theft claim tends to be the associated damage caused to the building, which far outweighs the value of the stolen metal. In addition, vital services are often disabled and there can be property owners’ liability issues if premises are rendered unsafe. The criminal activity even threatens innocent people’s lives. “Residential properties have been known to go up in smoke as a consequence of pipes being torn out that are connected to gas meters.” Two recent blasts in Liverpool and West Yorkshire are attributed to this.

Soft targets
All types of commercial and residential properties are suffering, with trends showing that vacant buildings are viewed as soft targets, especially in isolated areas, such as business and industrial parks. It doesn’t seem to matter whether a property is empty for a short or long term. “We are seeing a generation of organised gangs and opportunistic thieves operating at all levels and there is no specific geographic area or particular type of property being targeted, which makes it very difficult to police,” adds David Townsend, Senior Underwriter, Commercial Property, Aviva.

Any old scrap
Copper prices have trebled in value between August 2009 and 2011 and across the country criminal activity has risen in tandem with higher values. London’s Metropolitan Police alone have recorded a 10% rise in commercial burglary and a 30% rise in scrap metal theft. Although copper sits on top of the scrap heap, robbers look for all types of metal, including aluminium, bronze, steel and other ferrous and nonferrous metals.

Preventing the crime
“SitexOrbis is often called in by an insurance company when one of its clients’ properties becomes vacant,” explains Colin. “Here, our approach is one of prevention and we work in close partnership with the landlord. “A recent breakthrough in technology is videofied alarm systems. These are rapidly deployable and cost-effective visual verification alarm systems that can be used anywhere. As soon as movement is detected, the alarm is triggered and the system automatically captures a ten-second recording of the scene.” A key benefit is that video identification dramatically cuts down on false alarms. “When sensors are tripped, images are sent straight to our 24/7 response centre, where we have trained operators. If that’s because of a fox, then no action is taken. But if we can see perpetrators, the police are called to the scene immediately.” SitexOrbis runs a BS5979 CAT II Alarm Receiving Centre.

Fighting back
The new security system has won praise from the police not just for reducing false alarms, but for helping to identify perpetrators. “In a recent case, a housing association lost £170,000 worth of boilers in a week.

Our videos led to successful arrests and, hopefully, justice. The Crown Prosecution accepts video recordings as evidence.”
When a property becomes vacant, Colin advises that property owners take the following actions.

1. Get in touch with your insurer straightaway to be clear about any unoccupancy conditions.

2. Allow a professional surveyor to highlight the risks and implement any risk improvement measures suggested.

3. Cap off the utilities (gas, water and electricity) and chain and padlock isolation valves. Owners have a legal liability to make sure that people are safe inside their vacant properties, even if they happen to be burglars. Consider any other safety risks, such as the condition of the roof. Legal firms do their best to gain substantial payouts for clients and, on top of that, there’s the adverse publicity to worry about.

Preventative measures
“Each property is different,” says Colin, “and will need a mix of security measures depending on its location.” One effective solution is the use of firmly fixed metal security screens (SitexOrbis use Sitex Steel Screens). “Wooden boarding is far less effective. In the recent London riots, for example, wooden screens have gone up in flames, leaving empty properties vulnerable to metal thieves.”

Some tips
Consider a layered approach to protection.
• If a building is being repaired or refurbished, replace metal roofing or flashing with unattractive materials, such as coated-steel sheets, glass-reinforced plastic and non-lead flashing or flexible (bitumised) felt.
• Always display warning signs as a deterrent.
• Fit intruder alarms, with fully monitored remote signalling. SitexOrbis recommends a videofied alarm solution (see earlier).
• Use firmly-fixed metal security screens to board up doors and windows.
• In some cases, manned guarding might be appropriate, but always make sure that any contracted guards hold Security Industry Authority (SIA) licences.
• For empty residential properties, provide neighbours with contact details if possible and ask them to inform the police if they witness any unusual activity. Also, avoid hedges growing too high as they conceal the activities of thieves.
• Carry out regular site visits, inspecting empty properties internally and externally.
• Use an Aviva preferred supplier, such as SitexOrbis, who will ‘put a building to sleep’ professionally. Compiled by Aviva and SitexOrbis.


And the fight goes on…
At the end of November 2011 it was reported that a new national metal theft taskforce is to be set up following a £5million boost from the Treasury.

The Home Office recognises metal theft as a serious problem, and is working with other departments and law enforcement on co-ordinated action to tackle it.
The new multi-agency taskforce, led by the British Transport Police, will target both metal thieves and scrap metal dealers who trade in stolen goods and fuel the demand.


Disrupt criminal networks

The taskforce will develop intelligence, coordinate activity and target and disrupt criminal networks - both the thieves and also the criminal market, including rogue elements of the scrap metal industry.

If you would like advice on how to protect your commercial property – please speak to Tony Cracroft, Commercial Account Handler on 0845 3711 452 or email tonycracroft@flintinsurance.co.uk

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