Mystery of the copper thieves who only strike on Thursdays

For the residents of a tiny village in Cambridgeshire, Thursdays have become a day to dread as thieves descend under the cover of darkness to steal copper phone lines, leaving hundreds of homes disconnected.

Barrington (population: 900) has become one of the worst casualties of a boom in metal prices that has fuelled a rise in thefts as organised gangs devise ever more audacious methods.

The Independent has learned that, in parts of the country, thieves posing as workmen are cloning BT vans to gain access to cables. Luke Beeson, BT's head of security, said: "They're coming tooled-up, wearing high-visibility jackets, setting up roadworks. We've even seen them putting our logo on the sides of the van."

Barrington has been targeted eight times in the past year by thieves who dig up and slice cables, before attaching them to the back of cars and accelerating away. They can strip out several kilometres of copper, leaving homes without phone or internet access. "If I were to set up my business now I'd seriously consider whether to base myself here," says Shane Thornton, an engineering consultant in the village. "There are parts of Africa that have more reliable broadband than us."

BT workers spend days replacing stolen cable, only for the criminals to return a few weeks later, almost always – and for reasons that remain a mystery – on a Thursday night. Residents joke that the only beneficiaries of the thefts are the area's pubs to which gangs go for refreshments.

Thieves who have previously targeted the rail network are now looking elsewhere. BT's network is reliant on over 120 million km of copper cable, much of it laid alongside rural roads.

In Manchester, the fire brigade is working with police after several cases in which thieves have set fire to cables to burn away the plastic insulation. They retreat while the fire brigade comes in, before retrieving the copper.

BT says faults on its network are up 30 per cent this year, mainly as a result of cable theft. The problem is fuelled by a boom in copper prices caused by increased demand in developing nations.

"It costs BT millions of pounds but the wider impact is the key thing for us," said Mr Beeson. "We've seen incidents of coastguards and the backup circuits for air-traffic control affected as well as hospitals."

In Barrington, Peter Alderson, 58, who runs the Post Office, is exasperated by the constant outages. "If we lose the phone line we can't take credit cards or call suppliers," he said. "Not only does it hurt the community at large, but we're also often unable to make calls in an emergency."

Mr Beeson says the only way to fight the crime is to regulate scrapyards, currently governed by legislation dating from 1964.

"At the moment you only have to register as a dealer and record names and address of sellers," he said. "We want to see dealers forced to register, keep CCTV footage and police given the authority to search premises.

"Last year we recovered over two hundred tonnes of BT cable from UK scrap yards. If we can choke the market, then we can help shut it down."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
businessUber, Snapchat and Facebook founders among those on the 2015 Forbes Billionaire List
News
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
News
Homer’s equation, in an episode in 1998, comes close to the truth, as revealed 14 years later
science
News
news
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003