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Copper theft 'like an epidemic' sweeping US

Copper is such a hot commodity that thieves are going after the metal anywhere they can find it: an electrical power station in Wichita, Kan., or half a dozen middle-class homes in Morris Township, N.J. Even on a Utah highway construction site, crooks managed to abscond with six miles of copper wire.

Those are just a handful of recent targets across the U.S. in the $1 billion business of copper theft.

"There's no question the theft has gotten much, much worse," said Mike Adelizzi, president of the American Supply Association, a nonprofit group representing distributors and suppliers in the plumbing, heating, cooling and industrial pipe industries.

"There was a perception that copper theft slowed down after the recession, and the rise in commodity prices seemed to ease off," he said. "But that's not the case. The theft has only been growing."

Stolen copper is valuable as scrap because the metal is used for so many items—from fiber optics to plumbing to anything electrical—and the profits are tempting.

(Read more: Copper near three-week low on China growth worries)

"Copper prices have leveled since the recession, but they're still high enough to have people steal it," said Michael Gurka, managing director of Spectrum Asset Management, a Chicago investment firm.

"It's also a very tangible asset and hard to trace, and reselling it can bring in lots of money," he added.

Ten years ago, copper futures traded at 80 cents a pound on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. By 2006, they were at $4 a pound. They are now trading at about $3 a pound, lower than seven years ago but still 375 percent higher than 2003.

According to the latest statistics from the National Insurance Crime Bureau which tracks incidents of metal theft, 25,083 claims were filed from 2009 to 2012, compared with 13,861 from 2006 to 2008. Nearly 96 percent of the claims in the more recent period were for copper theft.

The five leading states for the thefts are Ohio, Texas, Georgia, California and Illinois, the NICB said.

The problem has been left largely to local law enforcement agencies, though the FBI has stepped in and arrested dozens of people over...