Metal thefts plague farm country

Jul 21, 2013

Mike Obermann was among the victims of a rash of metal thefts in rural Missouri. Since then, he has installed theft-protection measures on his farm.
Credit Payne Roberts/Harvest Public Media

In the countryside, there are fewer people – and some prefer it that way, especially thieves. The National Insurance Crime Bureau says that metal thefts have increased by 36 percent since 2010 – and that leaves farm equipment and machinery as easy pickings.   Despite the overall increase, plains states still rank relatively well in rates of theft per capita: Colorado 37th, Nebraska 32nd, Oklahoma 28th, Texas 26th and Kansas 24th.  More densely populated state rank higher with Rhode Island ranked 1st, Ohio 2nd and Delaware 3rd.  But Payne Roberts of Harvest Public Media reports on how it’s an increasing problem in rural areas and new steps being considered and taken to curb the rise.

Along the 1200 Road in Windsor, Mo., there is plenty of gravel and farmland. But one thing it is short of is people.

Miles of green fields separate the farms that occupy this area of Windsor, a rural town of 3,000, making area farms easy targets in a series of metal thefts that robbed farmers of the tools they needed to do their jobs.

Mike Obermann was among the victims. He owns a farm of row crops and cattle northwest of Windsor with his wife. In the theft, he lost $500-600 worth of fencing material and an aluminum boat.

“I don’t know what the boat was worth,” Obermann said. “Well, it’s worth something to me because it was a family --it’s been in the family for over 40 years. I got a lot of memories with this boat. We used to fish in it a lot.”

Since the theft this spring, Obermann has installed security cameras and a locking gate on his property.

Metal is a valuable commodity because of its untraceable nature and fast turnover. Thieves can steal metal items and sell them for cash at a recycling facility within hours of obtaining the property. The National Insurance Crime Bureau reports that metal theft has increased by 36 percent in the US since 2010. And in farm country, there is often lots of metal lying around – everything from roofing scraps to farm equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

And rural areas are especially susceptible to metal theft according to Bruce Houston, a sergeant with Missouri State Highway Patrol who specializes in rural crimes investigations.

“It’s a higher risk out there because there’s less population, less eyes out there watching,” Houston said.

Even in town, being in a rural area makes one a fairly easy target. At Gardner Body Shop in Windsor, owners Kevin and Keith Williams are once again repairing cars, but that came after a short hiatus. It was hit three times this March, losing catalytic converters, aluminum wheels and a brand new tool box estimated at $16,000.

“If you don’t have tools it’s kind of hard to do anything,” Keith Williams said. “You go uptown to buy a few here and there to do the job.”

Gary Bush is the director of metal theft prevention for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a trade group that represents 1,600 scrap metal recyclers across the nation. He formerly worked in law enforcement and has been working metal theft incidents since 2004.

“Anything that can be recycled is being stolen and I see that in rural areas across the country,” Bush said. “Some people had an aluminum screen in back porch and they left for a couple days and somebody came and disassembled their screen porch.”

Farm machinery like tractors are often targets for thieves as well. Missouri and Kansas rank among the top states in the nation for farm machinery theft, according to the National Equipment Register. The registry tracks heavy farm and construction equipment thefts with data from the National Insurance Crime Bureau, individual reports from clients and 22 insurance-member agencies.

“The year-upon-year (figures) – roughly a billion dollars of farm and construction equipment is stolen in the U.S. that is insured,” Ryan Shepherd, president of the registry, said.

Law enforcement officers like Houston and Bush attribute a high amount of metal theft crimes to drug users looking to make some quick cash.

The lack of identifying markers on scrap metal provides a challenging obstacle to law enforcement attempting to recover the property. Large farm machinery often comes complete with a serial number, but for basic metal items, there is rarely a way to distinguish them. That can provide leeway for some recyclers who are willing to purchase stolen material.

“You’ll talk to them and tell them about what you’re looking for and ask if they’ve seen it,” Houston said. “Generally they haven’t. I don’t think they don’t ask a lot of questions and I don’t think they want to.”

Some states are asking more from recyclers when they purchase scrap metal. In Idaho, a new law requires recycling facilities to photograph individuals and their license plates when they sell scrap metal. A bill proposed in the Missouri Statehouse in 2012 would have required recyclers operating in the state to register with the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries and its scrap theft alert system, but the bill was defeated.

Equipment manufacturers, like John Deere, are responding to thefts by installing GPS-tracking systems in their equipment. JD Link is a GPS-alert system that allows customers to set parameters on their property and time frames for the when the machine should be used.

At the Heartland John Deere dealership in Centerview, Mo., customers purchasing large farm equipment can subscribe to JD Link.

“They have access on a website and they can go and set the parameters up however they want it,” Chad Lyon, store manager, said. “They can even identify who they want to be notified if the tractor is stolen or if it leaves a geo-fence or if it’s started outside a pre-described time frame.”

Farmers can be proactive by installing security cameras, signs, gates and locks. But according to Shepherd, harmless habits often attract thieves. In his experience at the registry, he says the number one mistake farmers make is leaving equipment exposed without protection, sometimes with the keys still inside.

“If you had a classic car, a Mustang or a Porsche, I don’t think you would leave the keys in the front seat or the ignition every night when you went to bed,” Shepherd said, “leave it in the front yard with the windows down and basically inviting anyone to hop in and take it for a joy ride.”

Authorities are starting to track metal theft and farm machinery crime. TRACE – Theft Reports of Agriculture and Construction Equipment, a service of the Johnson County sheriff’s office that serves bordering counties of Kansas and Missouri, alerts residents to thefts in their area through email, for instance.

Once a farm is hit, Houston says the thieves often return. So farmers should keep their guard up, and the keys out of the ignition.