With copper prices nearly tripling over the past year and demand for a variety of metals skyrocketing throughout the world, thieves have seized a crime of opportunity: raiding commercial and residential A/C units for their copper tubing.

While no official statistics exist, news reports indicate that this crime has occurred in several states, ranging from Hawaii to North Carolina. Reports indicate that A/C units in Texas, Oregon, Colorado, Kentucky, Nebraska, Indiana, Kansas, Alabama, Ohio Arkansas, Tennessee, California, and North and South Carolina, have been raided for their copper.

In Little Rock, AR, through mid-June, about 1,000 copper thefts had been reported. According to the Dallas Police Department, the city has seen such thefts have double over the last year, up from 113 to 282 so far this year.

In Tuscaloosa, AL, 14 copper thefts have been reported in 2006 as of July 8. According to a local newspaper's daily police blotter, the number of copper thefts reported by the Tuscaloosa Police Department jumped from one in 2004 to 23 in 2005. In Fayetteville, NC, 28 copper thefts were reported between June 1 and July 17, and officials in Pueblo, CO report that in 2005, approximately 50 A/C units, vacant houses, and homes under construction were plucked of copper from plumbing lines and electrical wiring. In Kentucky, the situation has become dire enough that the Kentucky Public Service Commission (PSC) recently issued a warned that attempting to steal copper can have lethal consequences.

A/C units at churches, small businesses, shopping centers, construction sites, and homes have been raided. However, it's not just A/Cs that are the targets of the metal thieves. Plumbing pipes, electrical wires, mailboxes, railroad crossing warning units, telephone poles, highway lights, gutters, and even copper urns decorating graves have all been pillaged.

Copper is 100% recyclable and selling scrap copper can be lucrative. According to national news accounts, certain types of copper have fetched as much as $4 a pound this summer. The copper price rise is attributed to an increased world demand, especially in China's booming economy, and a drop in production caused by natural disasters, and a labor dispute at a mine in Chile.

According to the Copper Development Association, recyclers on average pay 90% of the new copper price, or more than $3 a pound for scrap. Recyclers cannot tell if copper items have been stolen because they don't carry any identifiers.

Prosecuting these acts is not easy. One problem is the inability to track copper parts and tie them to an offense. Some law enforcement officials have recommended spray painting or etching copper pipes for identity purposes. Meanwhile, scrap companies are urged to check photo IDs and turn away scrap that looks too new. Some business owners are taking precautions by installing security systems, cages, or fences around their units to deter thefts.