Copper Crooks

Hard times, soft dollar contribute to significant increase in metal theft

Visitors to the Las Vegas Pinball Hall of Fame can play themed machines that date back to the 1940s and drink from Mountain Dew “throwback cans” resembling ones from the 1950s. It’s a simple formula that has worked, as the nonprofit business has made ends meet or better for four years, with surplus revenue going to local charities. And director Tim Arnold intends for it to stay that way. “We’re like the cranky old man down the block with a rotary phone and a manual sprinkler who doesn’t want to change,” Arnold says.

But he had no choice after April 12. That’s the day thieves broke into the business at 1610 E. Tropicana Ave. and stole about $100 of copper wiring. In doing so the culprits caused about $9,000 in damage by ripping apart breaker panels that provide power to the pinball machines and also by cutting live wires on an exterior transformer.

They didn’t touch the pinball machines themselves, though, many of which are vintage and quite valuable.

Strange? Metropolitan Police didn’t think so. Metals are a hot commodity during these hard times, they say, though most scenes of the crimes are homes and buildings left vulnerable by foreclosure. Copper, brass and aluminum theft is up about 40 percent compared with this time last year, with almost 70 cases reported in 2010. Air conditioners are the main attractions for thieves, who will cut the wires to get to the copper, Metro public information officer Barbara Morgan says.

The increase in theft may also be due to “exchange rate play,” says Stephen Miller, economics department chairman at UNLV. As the value of the American dollar has grown weaker, exporters have had to raise their prices on copper, a commodity that is priced worldwide in U.S. dollars. Copper prices have increased 70 percent in the last year, according to Bloomberg L.P., a financial news and data company. As a result, local sellers earn more money from scrap metal recyclers, or whomever they can sell it to.

“When the price goes up, it makes it more attractive to steal copper and resell it,” Miller says. “As the price rises, you’ll get more of that activity. If it keeps going up, we might start hearing stories of, say, people stealing wire out of light bulbs in neighborhoods.”

But it wasn’t so easy for thieves at the Pinball Hall of Fame. Arnold guesses they used a crowbar to “peel back the door like opening a can.” He estimates that it would have taken the thieves an extensive amount of time to chip away at two inches of steel door to reach the deadbolt lock.

The worst part of the break-in is that his extra expenses will mean fewer funds donated to charities, such as the Salvation Army. Arnold has also had to pay more to bolster security to prevent this from happening again. “We’re reinforcing, tightening up and bolting things,” he says. “Maybe we’ll also have to put in a gator pit at the door.”

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