LEWISTON — Property manager Sean Watkins first dealt with thieves stripping copper from one of his units in 2007. He's dealt with it a lot since then.
"It's the kind of thing that happens when the economy is bad, and the price of metals goes up," Watkins said. "People will steal anything."
For a night's work, thieves can escape with a house's inner workings — copper pipes from the plumbing and wires from the walls — and sell them for a tidy sum.
But it can doom a property.
"Renovations are expensive, and if a building is empty, anyway, there's no rent coming in," Watkins said. "Now add the cost of re-plumbing the building. If you can't do it right away, the building stays empty. And more thieves come, and it just gets worse."
Watkins and his crew actually found the thief, that first time.
"We pulled up to the building and saw this guy walking down the street with a backpack, and he had a copper pipe sticking out of the back," Watkins said.
The thief told police that he and two friends had spent the night in the building, cutting copper tubing from the walls and then cutting each pipe down into foot-long chunks, making them easier to transport in a backpack.
"That's how they transport it, not in a truck but in a backpack," Watkins said. "They take it to a central place and collect it all, until they get enough."
Then they sell it, taking the scraps they've collected to metal dealers. They can make as much as $1,000 per night.
"But each time they do it, it can cost us tens of thousands," Watkins said.
In 2011, thieves stripped copper pipes from four of the properties Watkins owns.
"But it's not just one instance," he said. "They keep coming back, especially if the building is empty. We put deadbolts on; we put chains on the doors, but you can't keep these people out."
Watkins isn't the only one with the problem.
Landlord Joe Dunn said one of his Auburn buildings was hit twice this winter. First, thieves came in and took every copper pipe within easy reach, then returned to remove the harder-to-find copper connectors deep in the walls.
Watkins said he's had the same thing happen to him. Thieves usually start with the plumbing. They might return later — in days or weeks — to strip out the copper wiring from the walls. They use a hammer to break into the wall and pull out the junction box, revealing the copper wiring beneath.
"Then they just grab that wire and start heaving," he said. "If they're lucky, they can just peel it — as if they are opening a FedEx box, just tearing open the Sheetrock. If they've done it before, they turn off the power first."
Thieves might return later to strip out the copper from the baseboards.
"I've even had people go in and strip occupied buildings," Watkins said. "They wait until everyone is asleep and then go in and cut the pipes out of the basement. You find out next morning when the tenants call to complain that they have no water."
Lewiston police Lt. Mark Cornelio said his department investigated 19 instances in 2011, mostly in downtown residential units.
Auburn police Sgt. Eric Audette his department investigated more than 12 cases of copper theft last year. It's not just a problem for rental units, he said.
"We have a problem with foreclosed homes or homes that have been left vacant — even people out of town on vacation," Audette said. "The big problem there is that if the house is empty, we may not realize that it's been robbed until weeks later. There may not be a lot we can do."
Demand for metal is what's driving the problem, in Maine and globally. Scrap copper is going for about $3.38 per pound in U.S. markets, down significantly from its $4.50-per-pound peak a year ago. But some economists expect the price to rebound in 2012.
"Which is just more incentive for people to steal it," Audette said. "We caught one guy and he made $1,000 in one night. Normally, it would have taken him two to three hours, but he was using drugs at the time, so it took him about six hours."
John Carroll, public information officer for Central Maine Power, said the utility spent $150,000 in 2011 replacing stolen copper wires from substations and repairing damage. Thieves target the substations, even though those thefts are as dangerous as they are difficult.
"Not only is it costly and dangerous to the thief, now it's a hazard to the employee who has to go in and repair it," Carroll said. "Each case becomes kind of a booby-trap for us. You can't know if a piece of equipment is charged with high voltage, when something like this happens."
State legislators are considering a bill, LD 1708, that would require metal dealers to keep all scrap metal for five days after they buy it, in case it's stolen.
But Colin Kelly, government relations manager for Schnitzer Northeast, said he didn't think that would help the problem. Schnitzer operates Maine Metal Recycling on Washington Street in Auburn.
"The materials are not easily identifiable," he said. "You can't look at it and see that this pipe was stolen, compared to any other. It's all the same, unlike a pawn shop where a gold ring might be very identifiable."
Kelly said his company insists on paying metal sellers by check, and only after three days. That's the standard practice.
"We operate two facilities in Maine, but we know of others here that don't do that," he said. "And we keep track of our records. If someone comes in, we get a photo ID. We ask law enforcement to notify us if they think there's a problem with any particular people."
Watkins said he has responded by replacing copper pipe in his units with plastic pipe.
"I've even considered going into units that I know are going to be vacant and cutting my own baseboards out and putting them in storage, but that's a crazy thought," he said. "But, if you cut it out, you can go and put it back later."
Police said they rely on wary neighbors to catch copper thieves.
"We've been fortunate to catch people red-handed," Audette said. "Good neighbors call us, when they've heard a lot of banging going on or noticed strange people around."