These are tough times indeed. Food stamps through the roof, unemployment at 7.6 percent; 13.9 percent by another measure (look it up -- impress your policy wonk friends!), and less food costing more and more money. Uh-oh! Not the best backdrop, if you're someone with stuff to protect! Sure, even in the best of times, people steal. But in a pancaked economy, the pilfering goes onward and upward, and sometimes it moves sideways and gets a little ... weird.
Let's take a look at 10 items you might not imagine people would steal, but steal them they do. One recurring theme you'll notice along the way is stuff being lifted because it can be sold as scrap metal. It's hard work for the earnest thief -- and not usually the stuff of a top criminal mind -- often with very little return on investment.
Vacant, and even occupied, houses can be stripped of their copper wiring and pipes or their copper-friendly appliances like air conditioners. Cars can be relieved of their metal-rich catalytic converters in no time flat. Aluminum streetlight poles can be cut down, chopped up and sold, lit streets be damned.
Manhole covers are one of the last vestiges of a bygone sidewalk era. Post office boxes and coin-op newsstands are vanishing and old-timey phone booths are a thing of the past.
Here's a good example of the scrap metal mentioned earlier. Cast-iron manhole covers get pilfered and sold for scrap. In the spring of 2012, New York's Con Ed had to scramble to keep up with a rash of manhole cover thefts, as more than 30 of them simply disappeared, making for a frustrated power company and nervous midnight strollers. And New York isn't the only place where they're stolen. They don't fetch a lot of money on the manhole-cover black market, but if history has shown us anything, it's that thieves don't mind being in a business with razor-thin profit margins.
Lock up your perishables! Even tomatoes aren't safe from thieves. Like all commodities, they have a value that can fluctuate wildly. In 2011, cold weather took a bite out of tomato production in Mexico, Florida and Texas. Prices rose for the scanty supply that remained, creating incentive for enterprising thieves in Florida, who stole $250,000 worth of tomatoes by posing as a trucking company and convincing farmers to let them haul away the cheery red foodstuff.
Green stuff grows all by itself, wherever it can. But in lots of places, people take great care to landscape on purpose. Plants can vanish from medians, public parks and even peoples' yards. Shrubbery and saplings can be boosted, and if you plant some fancy flowers, you do so at your own peril, come spring.
As if that weren't enough, there are even documented cases of people waking up to find out someone has stolen their entire lawn. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, especially when yours disappears overnight.
There may well be a special circle of hell reserved for people who steal things from grave sites, but that doesn't seem to stop some thieves from risking a lifetime stay in eternity's hottest gated community. Items such as a bronze vase can make an unexpected journey from someone's place of rest to the local scrap-metal market.
Laundry is serious business. Wander the detergent aisle of your local grocery store and you'll see a bewildering array of products vying for your attention with ever-brighter, extruded-plastic packaging. In spring 2012, a rash of Tide detergent thefts pointed to a nationwide trend -- Tide as a currency in the illegal drug business. The Tide thieves swap their haul in exchange for drugs; the dealers turn around and sell the detergent on the street. (Whether or not drug dealers keep some of the Tide for laundry day chores remains unknown.)
Usually, there are only two times when fire hydrants are in the news: Fires, of course, and heat waves, where they're seen in B-roll footage firing water out -- against their will, as it were -- into crowds of people eager to cool off (it's never clear WHO first manages to open up these rogue hydrants for business!). But here's a third time you might see them: When they've had their brass caps stolen and sold for scrap.
Burbank, Calif. saw a rash of cap thefts -- more than 100! -- last year. They cost more than $100 each to replace, so that was $10K no one planned on having to spend.
You can't draw blood from a stone, but you can at least draw sap from a tree. Some Maine residents in April 2013 found that trespassers were coming onto their land and stealing sap from their maple trees. If we exclude the small possibility that the thieves were just fans of sap, it seems pretty clear they were trying to cash in on the syrup market.
These crooks who've decided to make their bones in the sap game are damaging the trees too, because their methods aren't exactly those of a seasoned syrup pro: they use too-long drill bits to drill holes, they drill too many holes in a single tree and they gouge the tree with their taps. This crime not only achieves the rare combination of criminal trespassing and sap theft, but it also decreases the tree's value as lumber.
Here's a theft leaving standing-room only crowds in its wake. Outdoor aluminum bleachers at sporting fields seem to have become one more target in the hunt for quick cash in the scrap metal market. Just recently, bleacher planks have been removed from parks in Schuylkill County, Pa. and Batavia, N.Y.
Perhaps in another era these would just have been pranks -- rival schools taking things a bit too far. But today, to bring an audience to its feet all you have to do is steal their chairs.
Yes, you read that right: Hair! Last summer a Chicago beauty supply store had a break-in. The target? Not cash, but hair. In fact, some $80,000 worth of hair extensions were scalped from the premises. Boxes and boxes of it. It turns out there's a market for them, and the thieves were even smart enough to go for the real hair instead of the synthetic variety. Chicago's not alone. Shops from Michigan to Texas to San Diego have had more than a little taken off the top of their hair supplies.
The next time someone uses the line that they have a bridge to sell you, ask where it came from before you buy it. A development company in New Castle, Pa. used a corrugated-steel bridge as a back entrance to its property. But one morning the 50-foot-long, 20-foot-wide structure simply wasn't there anymore. Hard-working thieves had taken blowtorches to it and hauled it off.
The New Castle crew were pikers in the bridge-theft business, compared to thieves in the Czech Republic, who last spring made off with an entire 10-ton bridge. Using forged paperwork, the crew convinced rail officials that the bridge was supposed to come down to make way for a new cycling route. If this crew could make a bridge disappear, it's scary to think what they could achieve if they really applied themselves.