Thieves dressed as tradies costing Aussies millions in sinister nationwide trend

Criminals in Queensland accused of stealing copper from energy providers cost the state $4.5 million last year alone.

Vision of men caught on CCTV stealing copper from worksites in Queensland.
Opportunistic thieves are ripping copper cables and ripping off the taxpayer. Source: 9News

A surge in copper theft is causing millions of dollars worth of damage to energy grids and telecommunication infrastructure across the country, with authorities warning they're now being forced to resort to drastic action to combat the growing problem in parts of Australia.

In Queensland, where the crime is particularly prevalent, thieves cost the state a whopping $4.5 million in damages to the electrical network in 2023 alone, with culprits even reportedly dressing a tradies to avoid detection while they make away with live wires.

Authorities say those responsible sell the cables to scrap metal dealers who melt and reshape it, largely for use in electronics. They've warned that not only is the act costly and inconvenient to energy providers, it's also extremely dangerous.

This week in Queensland, two alleged copper thieves were caught on CCTV attempting to rob an Energex site, with one man seen clambering onto a work truck trying to search for wire, before police intercepted and apprehended him.

In the footage, the pair are seen entering the site in a ute, scouring the property for copper.

An alleged copper thief in Queensland caught on CCTV.
Alleged copper thieves were caught on CCTV this week trying to rob an Energex site. Authorities say it's a recurring issue across the state. Source: 9News

Depending on the type and quality, copper can fetch as much as $10 per kg. But energy workers have warned trying to rip out copper cabling could come at a much higher price.

"We've had instances where copper thieves have taken up to 1000 metres of cable in one night. That's a significant amount of damage to the network," Chris Graham, an Energex area manager, told 9News.

He issued a warning to all would-be thieves, revealing the true scale of the danger facing them — up to 11,000 vaults – while holding up a failed theft attempt showing where thieves had attempted to cut into .

"They would've had a plasma ball, hotter than the surface of the sun, right in front of their face," he said.

An exposed cable, as copper theft soars across Queensland.
Energex Area Manager Chris Graham said robbers are dealing with up to 11,000 vaults right in front of their face. Source: 9News

Copper theft in Queensland tripled since 2020, with hundreds of incidents reported last year, according to Energy Queensland. Since 2023, 494 attempted copper thefts were recorded across the state, with 340 thefts reported this year to date, the authority said.

Energy providers across Queensland now say they'll take the drastic measure of replacing copper with aluminium, in a bid to deter further theft, with new housing estates, sporting clubs and businesses repeatedly targeted.

While Queensland authorities grapple with how to best to tackle the growing problem, police in Victoria in November busted an organised crime syndicate that allegedly stole $780,000 worth of copper from telco pits, causing mass internet and power outages.

Eleven people were arrested as part of a police investigation into 50 large-scale copper thefts that occurred in Melbourne’s north over the first six months of 2023. It’s alleged the offenders used portable power tools to cut through telco pits housed in residential streets and stole large quantities of copper.

The damage reportedly caused disruptions to internet and power and significant distress to impacted residents, police said at the time.

Pictures of exposed wiring from copper theft in roadside telco infrastructure.
Exposed wiring from copper theft with telco infrastructure can lead to fires. Source: 9News

In April, Yahoo spoke to a tradie was stunned to discover copper was stolen from a property left vacant for a few weeks between tenants. Local plumber and bathroom specialist, Mick, was told the house he was heading to in Coffs Harbour had "no water" inside the home, yet the new tenants moving in could hear the sound of water "p**sing out" from somewhere under the house.

After turning on the water, Mick noticed that water was "shooting straight up" from the ground under the house. Investigating its source, he found a "little copper pipe" sticking out that looked as though it had been "ripped off". The pipe should have been supplying the entire house with water.

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