August 22, 2023 By Anthony Capkun
August 22, 2023 – It started with a phone call from one of my friends in electrical distribution: “Hey Anthony, have you heard anything about a bunch of break-ins at electrical distributors?”.
Up until that moment, I had not.
“They’re taking residential wire, smoke detectors […]” my friend continued, adding that the thieves—who may or may not be the same ones behind all break-ins—are using stolen vehicles. “They seem to be a well-organized outfit.”
Now that I have heard about what sounds like a crime spree, I wanted to know more. Copper theft is not new (we’ve published numerous news items on that front), but this sounded like something different altogether. And it seemed to be concentrated in Ontario.
Rather than phone every electrical distributor in the province, I figured the most efficient way to learn more was to contact Carol McGlogan, president & CEO of Electro-Federation Canada, which counts many of Canada’s electrical distributors in its membership.
How big is the problem, and where?
McGlogan says she, too, was caught off guard when the news of break-ins was first brought to her attention.
“Gerrie Electric were the first to approach me. They had had several branch break-ins and were wondering whether or not I had heard similar news from other distributors,” McGlogan says. “And, at that point, I had not, so I sent out a note to all the heads of distributors in Ontario, asking whether they were seeing any activity.”
After not hearing back from anyone, EFC figured the Gerrie break-ins were isolated incidents. “But then, all of a sudden, I started to get a couple of responses saying, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ve seen some activity’,” McGlogan says. “So I sent out a second request, and then I got a bunch back.”
It was now abundantly clear that this was not an isolated incident.
“So we met as a group—those who had been affected, or who were interested in learning more,” she continued. The group assembled as much information as they could about the incidents, and delivered all of it to the police.
The No. 1 products being stolen are wire and cable, but the list also includes circuit breakers, receptacles, LED light fixtures and lamps, power tools, power bars/extension cords, lighting controls and sensors, and other building products.
When McGlogan says they compiled detailed information about the break-ins, she is not kidding. The group is looking at everything from time of day and location (e.g. behind the building) to the types of doors the thieves are breaching (e.g. glass, roll-up).
And the facts bear out that this remains primarily an Ontario problem.
In Brampton, one distributor pleaded for a meeting with the mayor to address the break-ins problem, writing:
I have been trying to reach you and would like a meeting asap to discuss. We have been broken into five times plus one failed attempt. We are tired and frustrated […] and risk being cancelled by insurance or having to pay outrageous premiums.
“We have national distributors on our task force, and they’re just talking about Ontario,” McGlogan noted. “I would imagine if there were a problem in other parts of the country, they would have said. But nobody has requested anything national, so we’re focused on Ontario.”
To wit, an excerpt from an EFC letter to police in April 2022:
“The recent rise in copper prices have made wire and cable a key target for theft in Ontario. In the past 5 months, 86 targeted thefts have occurred within our distributors—all for the same product, with similar tactics being used. Our concern is that these are organized crimes spanning several jurisdictions requiring a co-ordinated effort to solve and prevent.”
By the numbers
Since our initial conversation, McGlogan cited the most current statistics:
• 114 reported break-ins to EFC.
• The highest amount of activity occurred between Q4 2021 and Q1 2022, accounting for 60% of the break-ins.
• Regions with the highest break-in activity are: Halton (20), York (18), Peel (17), Waterloo (16), Durham County (15).
• At least $1.2 million in stolen goods has been reported. This amount is likely higher, as some distributors did not provide dollar values.
Prevention is the key, and that includes asking how law enforcement could help prevent these activities (like driving around the back of these distributorships), and providing law enforcement with as much information as possible. Something in there could help them solve these cases.
“If I remember correctly, one of our task force members had a break-in that occurred through the roof. They could see it on the camera footage,” McGlogan said. “And the guy fell and hurt himself, and had to be carried out by his posse.”
When we spoke, McGlogan could not say with 100% certainty whether it is one criminal organization or many behind the break-ins, nor does she know where the stolen goods are ending up.
“Whenever there’s another break-in, I collect the information,” McGlogan says. The task group’s members not only share intel about methods of entry, but also what they’re doing to secure the premises. “Whether it’s parking vehicles in front of the door, or doing certain things with locks inside… somebody even mentioned a type of detector that disperses a fog during a break-in. There’s all sorts of cool things out there to catch the bad guys.”
EFC has provided members with information on how to keep their premises safe, as well as a flyer to police identifying EFC members who require extra protection. “And we have provided a flyer to be distributed at branch locations to inform contractors of the safety implications of purchasing stolen and counterfeit goods.”
There is also a chat group among Ontario distributor leaders where they share information about their break-ins and offer security tips. “So they’re connecting with each other for best practices, and to help the police network among themselves, especially when the activity is crossing jurisdictions.”
Outside of the moral, ethical implications of purchasing stolen goods, I asked McGlogan what message she has for people who are being offered great deals for something that fell off the proverbial back of a truck?
“When a deal is too good to be true, it’s a red flag… something’s off, right? If you’re getting a price that’s way too good, your antenna should be up.”
“Whenever you buy outside of authorized channels, you don’t know whether you’re dealing with stolen product, or maybe even counterfeit product… you really don’t know, and that’s a safety issue,” she said. “As a contractor, you’re obliged to carry out safe installations and keep your customers safe.”
“Also, what’s your recourse if something goes wrong with the product? When you purchase from the proper channel, you have recourse in terms of quality and returns, and that kind of thing. So you’re giving up all of your protections.”
At the end of the day, McGlogan said, you put your customer into harms way, and risk your own reputation, because you will be linked to all of that activity.
And that reputation extends to the entire community. If you see it, report it, McGlogan said. “It’s like Neighbourhood Watch… to watch out for each other. You want to keep this industry clean. So it’s important to respond as a community.”
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