In Chuck Miller’s world of being a longtime landlord, criminals have always been at least a half step ahead of everyone else.

In Chuck Miller’s world of being a longtime landlord, criminals have always been at least a half step ahead of everyone else.

But never have they been at such a full sprint.

An Independence landlord who owns 11 properties throughout the city, Miller has been battling a war that more and more property owners are fighting, and losing. Since November, Miller has lost more than $20,000 worth of personal property – through theft, through damage, and through what many consider to be the most important component in life: time.

“Since Thursday I’ve put 20 hours of my life into this, getting the quotes and information to get this prosecuted,” Miller said earlier this week. “It’s become a huge burden on my life.”

There was a time when being a landlord hadn’t been such a burden. Back in 1984, specifically, when he purchased his first of several homes for the purpose of renting them out, there were issues, to be sure, but they were minor.

But the problems were nothing like what he has been seeing – and hearing about – the past several months.

Miller’s recent losses are part of what he called a theft and damage spree at four Independence homes he owns and rents. He has lost copper wire, hot water tanks, air conditioners and other items, including steel beams from beneath a living room floor.

His experience mirrors closely similar incidents reported last year in Independence, specifically at churches, where thieves damaged and stole air conditioners, oftentimes stripping them of their copper components and selling them at salvage yards.

In one week in March 2010, copper was stolen from five vacant homes. From April 1 to 7, there were five reports of larcenies at homes and businesses where metal was taken.

On a recent Friday, thieves clipped $100,000 worth copper from power lines off Bundschu Road in Independence. In Kansas City, thieves removed millions of dollars worth of copper and wiring off trains, a process that literally took hours to complete.

The problem is nationwide, so much so that an advocacy group named the Coalition Against Copper Theft has labeled it a national emergency.

“We believe this is a national security issue,” Bryan Jacobs, executive director of the Coalition Against Copper Theft, said in a statement. “The only thing keeping it from being an epidemic is that scrap yards are now scrutinizing the material. But theft is still rampant.”

The Washington group includes telecommunications firms, power companies and railroads.

Utility companies, too, are feeling the effects and are preparing for it.

Courtney Beatty, a spokesperson for Kansas City Power and Light, said the company has increased its monitoring of vulnerable sites, and employees are becoming increasingly more educated in copper theft and equipment vandalism.

“While we haven’t seen an increase in theft,” she said, “we’re always preparing for it.”

Within the last year, the FBI has begun considering the theft of copper wire to be a threat to the nation’s baseline ability to function. In February, the agency said it was planning to update a 2008 report that called the crime a threat to the nation’s “critical infrastructure.” It’s estimated that the nation loses $1 billion per year in copper theft.

While the advocacy group maintains that scrap yards are scrutinizing material coming through the gates more than in the past, Miller is still skeptical. The ease with which the thieves sell the items at scrap yards has prompted Miller to take a closer look at existing state law, as well as examine what he can personally do to stop it.

“They steal it and sell it easily – practically new air conditioners, not scrap, and the buyers buy it,” he said, shaking his head. “They caught the guy who did it to my properties, and the police told me they were going to load up the charges on him, but he got out on $200.”

The “guy” is suspect Ronald C. Bloom, who was arrested and charged with first degree burglary and first degree property damage, both of which are felonies. His preliminary hearing is scheduled for May 11. As part of his release, Bloom is to possess no wire and/or bolt cutters and stay out of all recycling centers.

Miller isn’t impressed.

“Everything he did – and he gets out on $200,” he said. “I think everyone agrees that not enough is being done, especially when the people who do it post bail and turn around and sell it the next day. There needs to be more of an inquiry at the salvage yards.”

Miller’s son, Kent, who recently finished his master’s in criminal justice, said it’s not the fault of police, who he said are battling an overwhelming problem that has little consequence.

“The criminals are a step ahead of everyone,” Kent, Chuck’s son, added. “States all over are trying to catch up.”

Missouri is somewhat like California, where in 2009 the state enacted a law requiring people selling copper wire or catalytic converters at scrap yards to be photographed, have their driver’s license copied and wait at least three days for payment. Other states, including Georgia and Oregon, have approved similar laws.

In Missouri, lawmakers in 2008 modified an existing law regarding unlawful purchases of certain scrap metals. Now certain illegal purchases are labeled as Class D felonies, or a maximum prison sentence up to four years and a $5,000 fine, or more.

Copies of the seller’s driver’s license or other photo identification must be kept for two years, and violations of that order carry a Class A misdemeanor charge, or a year in jail and $1,000 fine.

State Sen. Will Kraus, newly elected to the 8th District, handled that bill with modifications in the House in 2008, and he said this week that he anticipates no new legislation for the 2011 session.

Capt. Ken Bergman of the Independence Police Department said the biggest problem is lack of officers to patrol streets and take incident reports. Most times it’s difficult to prove that items are stolen – unless police catch them in the process.

“This is bigger than we are,” Bergman said. “The department isn’t equipped with the manpower or the resources to fight this, and metal shops are taking everything and anything. Everyone is upset about this.”

 Several salvage yards did not return calls seeking comment.

 Miller said there needs to be more steps in place at salvage yards to ensure that the items brought in are legitimately the seller’s property. Yet he admits the difficulty of that.

“You can’t track wire,” Miller said. “You can’t track copper pipe.”

 KC Iron and Metal has seen a decrease in suspicious sellers within the past year, according to Josh, an employee there. Part of that is due to the rigorous steps sellers have to take to sell material at the business, which are often necessitated by the tough laws in Missouri.

“It’s stricter here than in Kansas,” Josh said. He declined to give his last name. “The general atmosphere here is that we do the best we can to keep the suspicious sellers out. We tell them we have a data base and that all materials are recorded as owned by the seller.”

Josh doesn’t see the benefits of withholding payment for materials, as some states, like California, do.

“You’d have to have eight football fields of land, but even then it wouldn’t solve the problem,” he said.

Copper continues to rise in market value. In 2009, a pound of copper was about $1.25. In April 2010, copper was trading at about $3.51. The material continues to fluctuate in price, according to Josh. As of Friday, it was selling at about $3.30, but that’s likely to change, he said.

To begin an effective campaign against copper and materials theft, Bergman said owners must record identification numbers on the units, which helps track the item. Securing materials and locking homes and businesses are other preventive measures. Neighbors also have to be on the lookout and report questionable activity immediately, he said.

Miller has began securing his homes with new security systems. He files the system with the police department, a route he rarely took in the past.

Lori Banister, who co-owns Castle Guard Security in Kansas City, said she has seen a spike in the number of theft incidents throughout the area.

“It used to be how do you keep the kids inside?” she said. “Now it’s how do you keep the kids from breaking in?”

Banister said her company, unlike many, offers landlord security packages. The pricing and the services provided are important, she said, because many of the homes remain vacant for long periods of time. And unlike many security companies, Castle Guard does not require a contract or credit checks, which oftentimes discourages landlords.

“That’s the future of the business,” Banister said of no-contract, no-credit check deals. “People are starting to see the value in that.”

As much as he has enjoyed renting properties, Miller is considering getting out of the business altogether.

“But I can’t get rid of the homes in this economy,” he said. “I’ve tried selling them, but nothing is selling right now.”