Baltimore's mayor has ordered a police crackdown on scrap dealers who buy stolen metal stripped from vacant houses, saying the practice has reached "epidemic proportions" and is causing poor residents to suffer.
In a strongly worded letter sent last month to 13 dealers across the city, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said he has asked the police chief to investigate scrap dealers and bring lawbreakers to justice.
"This theft is affecting the well-being of the housing stock in the city," the March 23 letter says. "This matter has caused great pain and suffering to people, especially in low-income housing because of faulty water pipes and wiring."
The mayor's spokesman said the letter was sent to every known scrap dealer in the city and that no business was singled out.
"Anybody that comes in that sells scrap to us that is not a contractor or a businessman is required to give us identification," said Steve Epstein, vice president of Hanover Metal Co., located in the first block of W. Cross St. "As far as a legal standpoint with the Police Department, we are covered with everything that we do."
Mr. Epstein said he keeps a list of people he buys from and sends that to the police once a week. If he unknowingly bought stolen goods, he said he is protected as long as he can show police who sold it to him.
Two other companies that received letters said the crackdown wouldn't affect them because they either only deal with contractors or do not buy the type of metal that is most commonly stolen -- copper and aluminum.
Joe Simon, the manager of Brooklyn Salvage Corp., said his company only buys steel. "Usually people take copper tubing out of sinks," he said. "It's a problem that is in every major city. Guys have to be aware what they are buying."
Jerry Landsman, vice president of S. H. Landsman & Sons, said he got the letter from the mayor Wednesday. "To me it had no meaning," he said. "Our business is strictly industrial. We don't have the guy in the push cart or the pickup truck.
"There are scrap metal dealers who buy stolen merchandise. Do they do it knowingly? Maybe some do. I think the majority do not."
The problem gained prominence in December when an undercover police officer posing as a hobo sold $2.60 worth of scrap metal to the United Iron and Metal Co. The company was charged with 10 criminal violations that could bring a maximum of $26,000 in fines.
Police said the company did not file the required forms recording their transactions.
Thursday, Mr. Schmoke said the main problem was thefts from (( vacant buildings. He said property owners are forced to remove furnaces and other appliances before renting or selling, and then reinstall them when someone moves in.
"These people are literally stripping these vacant buildings . . . We even had a couple of reports of furnaces being taken out of these vacant houses," he said. "It just serves as a disincentive for people to fix up properties, and we want to make sure that we're doing what we can."