TUCKER, Georgia (CNN) -- Last Thursday around dusk, Granite Park soccer field in suburban Atlanta was more crowded than usual.
With lights not working, the Optimist Club of Fort Worth, Texas, was forced to play all games on Saturday.
Makeshift goals had been erected to accommodate five extra teams from the Tucker Youth Soccer Association. On the sidelines, groups of giggly kids waited their turns on the field while soccer moms and dads mined the crowded green space in search of a place to park their lawn chairs.
The atypical arrangement was caused by thieves who had ripped out copper wiring from light poles at nearby Henderson Park field, causing about $6,000 in damage, displacing teams that practiced under the lights and making the TYSA players the latest victims of a nationwide epidemic.
"It's annoying that we have to drive all the way here. It takes away time from homework and talking to friends," said Lizzie Howell, 15, who had to leave home earlier than usual to make it to practice by 7 p.m.
Her friend and teammate, Jessie Spencer, worried that the cramped quarters might affect her game.
"I'm kind of upset that we didn't get to practice on the same field and we have to be all crowded out here," said Spencer, 15.
TYSA fared well compared with its neighboring league, the Gwinnett Soccer Association, whose teams sought refuge at Granite two weeks earlier under similar circumstances. The vandals who hit the GSA's field in Lilburn stole about $100 worth of copper wiring from their field and caused about $8,500 in damage. iReport.com: What do you think about the economy? Are you better off?
Those losses paled in comparison to the $25,000 in damage caused by thieves who hit Norcross Soccer Academy's Pinckneyville complex in Norcross, Georgia.
"It's very unfortunate because there's just no way to prevent something like this. We can't have people posted outdoors all night, and trying to get surveillance out there is very costly," said Leonard Howell, president of TYSA. "It's not just about repairing and replacing what we lost, but how much do we have to invest to prevent this?" Watch how copper thieves can spoil a kid's game »
The rising price of scrap metal, driven by demand to fuel the world's emerging economies, has led to a steady increase in thefts across the United States and around the world.
In the past five years, copper prices have risen about 300 percent, from about a dollar a pound at scrap yards in 2005 to more than $4 a pound earlier this year.
"When it was around a dollar a pound, metal theft wasn't something we dealt with too often. Now, it consumes about 85 to 90 percent of our time," said Sgt. Walt Reed of the Kern County Sheriff's Department in California. His jurisdiction covers 100 square miles of the county in California's central valley, the heartland of the state's agricultural production.
Kern County's vast geography makes it difficult for Reed's force to patrol tracts of farmland. It's a magnet for scrap thieves drawn to the metal in irrigation pipes, water pumps and diesel motors.
Reed estimated that about 90 percent of the suspects arrested for metal theft turn out to be addicted to the stimulant methamphetamine.
Even as commodity prices have begun to drop recently amid the global financial crisis, metal thefts have remained consistent, according to industry analysts who track such activity on an anecdotal basis, because no organization keeps national statistics on metal theft.
A study by the U.S. Department of Energy found that in 2007, copper theft cost industry about $1 billion, a figure that doesn't take into account damage sustained by private citizens or organizations like TYSA, whose field is owned by DeKalb County, Georgia.
"It's a crime of little consequence for thieves, but it costs victims thousands and thousands of dollars," said Bryan Jacobs, executive director of the Coalition Against Copper Theft. "They'll go into homes, churches, schools and do thousands of dollars in damage because to do the repairs, you have to replace the entire unit."
In their quest for copper, which is valued for its conductive properties, thieves exact devastating collateral damage, from rendering cancer patients unable to seek radiation treatment at a clinic in Vista, California, to leaving entire neighborhoods without power, as was the case last week in Ohio.
As communities have stepped up efforts to stem the thefts, bandits have become more resourceful, turning from traditional targets like electric substations, construction sites and homes to cemeteries, artillery ranges and athletic fields.
In the past three months alone, CNN found at least five incidents of copper wiring thefts from light poles on athletic fields, in addition to the three incidents in metro Atlanta.
"Usually, athletic fields aren't guarded, they don't have locked fences and they're pretty easy to get into," said Bill Verner, vice president of government relations and communications for the Georgia Electric Membership Corporation, a statewide trade association serving Georgia's 42 electric cooperatives.
"Copper theft is like where identity theft was 15 years ago. It's becoming an epidemic that's affecting everyone, and the cost of damages often falls on the consumer, or in the case of athletic fields, the teams that use them," he said.
For some organizations, the repair costs are simply too much to bear. The Optimist Club of Fort Worth, Texas, struggled to come up with money after thieves ripped more than 9,000 feet of copper wiring from light poles and the ground at Junior Optimists' Field.
"It just got me in the gut," said Neil Hunt, president of the club, which provides activities for children from low-income homes. "Knowing someone would take away from the kids was just heartbreaking."
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The organization relies on Christmas tree sales and concession stand profits to finance its operations. But with help from a local utility company and community donations, they've raised $20,000 for the repairs.
"It's been sad, but heartwarming at the same time, to see how the community has rallied to our cause. It's a pat on the back that says we like what you're doing," said Hunt, who estimated that the stolen copper would net about $2,000 at a recycler.
No one has been arrested in the thefts in Georgia or Fort Worth, which underscores the difficulty in preventing them and prosecuting suspects.
The most common response has been to focus on scrap recyclers, where thieves trade their ill-gotten goods for money, after which, the metal goes to a smelter so it can re-enter the marketplace. (One thing that makes copper desirable is that it retains most of its natural properties through the recycling process.)
On the federal level, Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, introduced the Copper Theft Prevention Act of 2008, which would require recyclers to keep records of the seller's name, address, driver's license and a description of the transaction for at least a year. The bill imitates legislation in effect in 29 states.
Most laws address the purchase of scrap metal, from requiring recyclers to keep surveillance videos of transactions, as they do in Florida, to making dealers mail checks to the sellers' homes for transactions larger than $250, one of many provisions signed into law this year by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Trade organizations like the Georgia Electric Membership Corporation have pushed for legislation that looks beyond the scrap dealer.
In 2007, Georgia passed a law that allows prosecutors to try copper theft suspects for the value of the copper stolen as well as the cost of damage, a figure that elevates the crime to a felony in nearly every instance. The GEMC also holds annual meetings with community leaders, law enforcement, and utility and telephone companies to discuss community prevention strategies, like posting signs in grocery stores and on gas pumps warning of the risks of metal theft.
The organization that represents scrap recyclers supports such community efforts, saying legislation like the Hatch-Klobuchar bill imposes burdens on an industry that already does most of what the bill is asking.
"The thief is never mentioned in the act, which is geared specifically toward our industry," said Chuck Carr, vice president of membership of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. Carr said his group is eager to do its part, but suggested the community also has a role.
"Quite frankly, the damage is already done, the cost to the community has already been exacted by the time the metal gets to the scrap yard," said Carr, who estimates that about 97 percent of the material that goes through scrap yards is legitimate. "Yes, the scrap recycling industry bears some responsibility, but we feel there are multiple stakeholders, and the victims have to be part of the prevention effort."
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