Copper theft has been growing. The telecom industry wants tougher penalties

Dov Dimant, owner of Vancouver's Capital Salvage, is pictured with a bin of scrap copper. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC - image credit)
Dov Dimant, owner of Vancouver's Capital Salvage, is pictured with a bin of scrap copper. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC - image credit)

The Canadian telecommunications industry wants stiffer penalties for copper wire thieves, who they say are repeatedly causing outages that can leave thousands of customers without service when they cut the wire off telephone poles to sell for scrap metal.

The number of incidents grew by about 200 per cent annually from 2021 to 2023, according to estimates from the Canadian Telecommunications Association. It says the service interruptions can become a matter of public safety when customers can't use their phones to call 911.

"It's not a victimless crime," said Eric Smith, senior vice-president of the Canadian Telecommunications Association.

Copper wire is typically used in traditional telephone and DSL internet lines, but thieves have been known to remove everything off a utility pole, including fibre-optic cables.

"It's a bit of a life safety issue [for thieves] as well," said Brian Lakey, vice-president of the Telus Reliability Centre of Excellence and co-chair of the Canadian Telecom Network Resiliency Working Group.

"They cut everything, so they may cut through copper, they may cut through fibre, they may cut through power lines, and if they cut through power lines, they may get electrocuted."

A problem everywhere

Outside of the industry, it can be hard to get national numbers about copper theft. The RCMP doesn't track this crime specifically, but according to the latest available data from Statistics Canada, metal theft (which includes copper wire, along with other things like manhole covers) grew 56 per cent between 2018 and 2022.

It's not just a problem in Canada. Last month, a bridge in Los Angeles went completely dark after people stripped it of wiring, and copper theft has become a major source of damages and delays for Europe's railway operators.

The growing concern around copper wire theft has coincided with a steep climb in the price of the commodity, which reached $11,000 US a ton this spring.

Copper is used in low-carbon technologies like electric cars and generators. It's become increasingly sought-after as countries seek to lower carbon emissions, though supply hasn't been enough to meet demand.

"For those reasons, copper has been at very high historical levels," said Bart Melek, global head of commodity strategy with TD Securities. He said there's recently been a decline in prices, but the commodity's long-term outlook is strong.

Stopping theft

Perspectives vary on the best way to crack down on copper theft.

Right now, thieves in Canada can face up to 10 years in prison if the value of the material they steal or disrupt is more than $5,000.

Smith said "most people" who steal copper end up getting charged with theft under $5,000, which he doesn't believe is enough of a deterrent.

"We're asking for stiffer penalties," said Smith.

Thieves are cutting and stripping copper wire by breaking into buildings, electrical substations, and even cutting wires directly off of utility poles.
Thieves are cutting and stripping copper wire by breaking into buildings, electrical substations, and even cutting wires directly off of utility poles.

Concern about copper theft has grown in recent years amid rising prices for the commodity. (Robert Short/CBC)

A proposed anti-foreign meddling bill would carry a new sabotage offence that would target copper wire thieves, though only if they're stealing with the intention of endangering the safety and security of Canada or its allies.

There are other ideas, too. Bell has tried taking its fight against copper theft to the civil system, launching lawsuits against alleged thieves.

Some provinces, such as Alberta and B.C., have brought in their own legislation to crack down on copper theft, requiring sellers to use government ID in order to sell at scrap metal yards.

Dov Dimant, owner of Vancouver's Capital Salvage, thinks that requirement has likely helped a bit, though it isn't foolproof.

"Generally, thieves aren't going to have current ID, so by insisting that everyone has ID, that eliminates a lot of people that can't get their act in order," said Dimant.

He's less sure if ramping up penalties will make much of a difference. Dimant said the reason people risk their safety to rip out copper wire is that they're desperate, and he thinks they either wouldn't care about the risk of greater punishment or would simply move on to stealing something else.

"Attacking the theft issue of metal is kind of a Band-Aid solution to a larger problem," said Dimant.

"The deeper problems, in my opinion, are drug addiction and mental health … so until we start combatting the roots of the problem, people are going to be stealing it."