Using analytics software to combat metal theft

Joanne Taylor says the key to tackling metal theft is how effectively police gather information and convert it into actionable intelligence.

May 10, 2012
By Paul Jacques

Joanne Taylor says the key to tackling metal theft is how effectively police gather information and convert it into actionable intelligence.

Metal theft has reached epidemic proportions across the UK. An estimated 15,000 tonnes of metal was stolen last year, much of it from railways, public buildings like schools and hospitals and places of worship. The problem is believed to cost the British economy £700 million a year – and it is getting worse – not least because of the rising price of copper which since 2009 has doubled to currently stand at more than £5,000 a tonne. The number of metal thefts is also believed to have doubled in the past five years, with 60,000 offences taking place in the first ten months of 2011 alone and British Transport Police now rating the issue second only to terrorism in its list of priorities.

The problem is more severe in some areas – Lancashire, Kent and Nottinghamshire, for example – than in others but if they are going to tackle it effectively, the authorities need to treat metal crime as a nationwide issue rather than a local one. This is a serious and highly-organised crime and the criminals are happy to travel extensively to find the scrapyard or dealer prepared to pay the highest price for their stolen goods.

So how can the authorities tackle this increasingly urgent issue? They would no doubt have been encouraged by Theresa May’s announcement of proposed legislation to prohibit cash payments for scrap metal. If implemented, this move will significantly disrupt the criminals’ supply chain.

However, the police, in tandem with the newly-created Waste and Metal Theft Taskforce, must also take proactive action to counter the threat. In doing this, the key is how effectively they gather information and convert it into actionable intelligence.

In tackling it, the first priority should be to collate information together from all the known metal thefts across the UK. This will necessarily involve information gathering and information sharing from all police forces and investigative agencies around the country.

Once all relevant data has been collected and collated, the new force then needs to start to profile individuals who are either known to have been involved or suspected of involvement in this type of crime. This will give them an insight into typical characteristics of people likely to be involved in metal theft but also the kinds of criminal networks that link these individuals.

This done, the force next needs to profile the crimes themselves and the ‘modus operandi’ used in carrying them out. Criminals are typically creatures of habit and the crimes they commit are likely to have many common threads. Technology and analytics software can be instrumental in helping uncover patterns between crimes and establishing whether crime clusters are likely to have been caused by one person or many individuals acting separately.

It is important to highlight too that their use can extend well beyond the initial crime to encompass the wider supply chain that supports the criminal activity itself. In this context also, cross-border information sharing can play a part in helping police and agencies like the Waste and Metal Theft Taskforce to pinpoint scrapyards and dealers that have a record of collusion in this type of crime. Analytics technology, both text and structure data related, can then risk-assess individual scrapyards as to the likelihood that they might wish to get involved in this type of activity.

So while the challenge of metal theft continues to grow and look increasingly onerous for those charged with fighting it, there is room for optimism in the tools and technologies that are now coming on stream to help the authorities effectively tackle this growing threat.

• Joanne Taylor has a background in technology for law enforcement and national security, forensic psychology and business analytics and is the Director of Public Security for business analytics software specialist SAS.

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