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Need something new to worry about? Your air conditioner

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Here’s an item to add to your list of things to worry about: your air conditioner.

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

RUSKIN - Here’s an item to add to your list of things to worry about:  your air conditioner. For thieves, the value of that large unit sitting unprotected next to your home is in the scrap metal, but what they get for it is only a fraction of what it costs homeowners and businesses to replace.

On August 18, Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office detectives arrested Joshua Poe and charged him with 61 counts of residential and business air conditioning unit thefts in Hillsborough County. Poe was taken into custody after a two and a half week investigation in conjunction with the HCSO’s Tactical Intelligence Unit.

In each case, Poe is alleged to have dismantled outside air conditioning units to remove the internal parts for copper scrapping. He would then take the copper to licensed recycling locations around the Tampa Bay area in exchange for cash.

In all, the HCSO said there were 23 victims of the crime spree with losses estimated to be in excess of $500,000. For that, Poe allegedly received only a small fraction in recycling payments. The recycling centers that paid cash for the copper are not currently under suspicion.

Last week, the HCSO arrested three men for allegedly stealing an air conditioning coil from a unit behind a vacant home in Tampa. An HCSO deputy noticed a man running across a yard carrying the coil to a waiting truck with two other men inside. Demonstrating that it is becoming a crime of opportunity, the deputy found two small children also inside the truck. Damage to the air conditioning unit was estimated at $1,000.

The Hillsborough County and the state of Florida have laws regarding the recycling of metals such as copper, brass, bronze, lead and aluminum. Anyone bringing metal to a recycler in the county must be fingerprinted and must provide a statement that he or she is the rightful owner of the metal. For those who obtain metal through theft, not only is the theft a felony, but additional charges may be applied for trafficking stolen goods. In addition, it is a felony to provide false information to a metals recycler.

From the recycler’s standpoint, they are prohibited from conducting business between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., and they cannot purchase regulated metals that were not transported to their location in a motor vehicle. Much like pawnshops, penalties may be applied to any metals recycler that knowingly accepts stolen property. The only recourse for the victim is through the courts. Should a victim make claim on metals in the possession of a recycler, the contested metals must be held intact until court proceedings have run their course. Of course, for the victims of air conditioner metal theft, identifying and petitioning for the return of stolen metals is an unlikely scenario, made worse by the fact that the thief often destroys the air conditioning unit.

In South Hillsborough, this has been an ongoing problem for the HCSO, and they have taken steps to combat it, such as increasing patrols in partially completed subdivisions and utilizing their intelligence tactical unit to identify crime patterns. According to one officer from the HCSO District IV office in Ruskin, the targets of most thieves in this area are vacant homes and businesses.

With the rising price of metals, the problem is not unique to either Hillsborough County or Florida. Last month in North Texas, during a period of extreme heat, a 79-year-old woman reported the theft of her air conditioning unit. The unit was located on the side of her home. It was, however, protected by a metal cage and a padlock, which did not deter the thief. Two days later, she was found dead in her home. The county coroner stated that her death was heat related.

For the criminal element, an air conditioner is increasingly a crime of opportunity yielding small but easy cash. For the victim, it is a painful and expensive headache. Companies have sprung up to sell protective cages for air conditioners but that didn’t stop the thieves in Texas. Other companies have appeared that sell electronic alarm systems that will detect a change in voltage at your air conditioner to sound a loud siren and place a call to a security service. Other suggestions are to install floodlights or motion sensing lights near your air conditioning unit, or to hide the unit behind landscaping or a small fence. If you leave your home for an extended period, ensure that your lawn is maintained in your absence, and talk to your neighbors. Simply working with your neighbors to keep an eye on things can make crimes of opportunity much less of an opportunity.

As the price of metals continues to increase, the criminal temptation for quick cash from residential air conditioning units will increase as well. Since the crime necessitates the destruction of the air conditioner, it can be much more than a nuisance, as the case of the elderly woman in Texas graphically illustrates, it can mean the difference between life and death. While the HCSO takes this growing crime seriously and has taken steps to combat it, air conditioning units are everywhere in Florida, deputies are not. A few common sense steps taken by homeowners can help to ensure that you won’t be the next victim.

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