A growing number of retailers are feeling the effects of an epidemic in cable and wiring theft sparked by the rising value of scrap copper.

In April the month that the price of copper surged to a near all-time high of $9171.5 per metre on the London Metal Exchange retailers David and Pippa Heritage of Barns Green Village Store in West Sussex were left unable to complete orders or open their post office after thieves stole 850 metres of copper telephone cable from their area.

Officers believe that the theft was carried out by gangs pretending to be telephone engineers, who would have later sold the copper on to scrap metal merchants for a substantial sum.

"It was an absolute nightmare," explains Pippa. "We couldn't place any orders for three days as we order via the fax line, which was down. The computer and till also crashed, and we couldn't open the post office so we had lots of frustrated customers."

Deepa Patel of Thorkhill Stores in Thames Ditton, Surrey, also lost valuable sales when she was unable to take card payments or place orders after copper thieves cut through two copper telecommunications cables near her store. "The worst bit was not being able to make or receive calls for five days. We were left completely adrift and, of course, we received no compensation," she said.

According to BT, last year saw a 9% rise in incidents of deliberate attacks on its network. In addition to telephone cables, thieves are also targeting gas lines and water pipes, leaving homes and businesses vulnerable to explosions and flooding.

The scrap metal price of copper cable is now six times higher than it was in 2002, and thefts from the UK's electricity and gas infrastructure are currently twice the rate of a year ago, according to the Energy Networks Association.

Police forces across the country are working with the Environment Agency to clamp down on rogue scrap metal merchants, while the British Transport Police is calling for legislative change to make scrap metal yards cashless a move which they say would create an "audit trail to identify those people involved".
opinion
Metal theft is a growing problem for communities across the country, as thieves target the copper contained in the local telecoms network, isolating vulnerable people and in some cases limiting access to emergency services. Such attacks cost BT millions of pounds each year. From now on, any criminal who targets the BT network risks being invisibly 'tagged' with Smart Water, meaning that the police can trace them, and any stolen cable or equipment, back to the scene of the crime." Bernie AugusteBT head of security for Openreach

Metal theft from homes and businesses is not a victimless crime. We welcome initiatives such as the joint operation organised by Anglian Water and Norfolk Constabulary in the use of Smart Water technology." Trevor WestRural Shops Alliance chairman

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