Richard Benash has a steady stream of regulars at his scrap metal yard in Yonkers, but lately he's been getting new customers -- like the guy who plopped down an old air conditioner earlier this month and gladly took $5 for it.
"He needed gas to get to work," Benash said. "It's sad to watch."
For Benash and others who deal in scrap metals, the challenge is knowing when to buy and when to take a pass on potentially stolen metal before the police come knocking.
Most agree there are two aligning factors propelling the rise of metal salvaging -- the economy is still sputtering, and metals like copper and aluminum are now valuable enough that increasing numbers of people see scrapping as a viable way to earn cash.
While the majority of people who collect and sell scrap metal aren't criminals, others are willing to break the law to make a quick buck, usually by raiding abandoned buildings, construction sites, train yards and even utility poles.
There are no statistics on scrap metal theft because police don't always catch the thieves, and scrap yard owners don't always know -- or bother to call cops -- if they've received stolen metal.
But the perceived increase in the number of scrap metal-related crimes prompted Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., to recently propose federal legislation that would compel scrap yard operators to keep more detailed records on metal sellers and restrict the cash amounts buyers can pay for scrap.
"It is time to put thieves who steal scrap metal from Westchester County homes, businesses, parks and infrastructure behind ironclad bars," Schumer told Newsday.
The legislation has preventive potential, said Brandon Kooi, a criminologist at Aurora University in Illinois. As a consultant for the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, Kooi wrote a paper detailing best practices for communities dealing with widespread illegal salvaging.
Among her suggestions: Photograph all individuals selling scrap metal and require identification. If illegal salvagers know they'll be photographed and have their identification logged, Kooi said, they may decide the risk is too great, especially if cash payouts are limited to $100 as Schumer proposed.
"The whole point is to have what we call a market reduction strategy, so the ease of turning stolen metal into cash is seen as much more difficult," Kooi said.
That might counterbalance growing payouts for certain metals, like copper, which can be sold for almost $4 per pound, more than double the 2008 price. The price of metal, Kooi said, "is definitely correlated with the increase of theft."
Legislation like the law Schumer proposed would have investigative benefits as well, police say. Cooperation by scrap metal buyers varies -- while Sgt. Mike Collier of the New York State Police said scrap dealers in the Dutchess County area are often helpful and keep detailed records, Lt. James Ladeairous in Port Chester said buyers in lower Westchester County are less cooperative.
"Most of these scrap metal people aren't going to tell you what's going on," Ladeairous said. "They just don't care."
Illegal salvagers are no longer just hitting obvious places, like the long-abandoned Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center in Dover Plains, where several people have been arrested in recent weeks. Those spots may be already picked over and carry greater risk for thieves.
Last week, State Police in Orange County arrested a Montgomery man who allegedly pried the plaques off several gravestones in the Wallkill Valley Cemetery. Local utilities also report dealings with salvagers, who loot utility poles for wire despite the threat of thousands of volts of electricity on live wires.
Central Hudson spokesman John Maserjian pointed to a theft in Ulster County during Hurricane Irene last year when the storm knocked wires down -- not only did the thief risk life and health for a relatively tiny payout, but it took repair crews more time to restore electricity to the neighborhood, Maserjian said.
Schumer's proposed Metal Theft Act, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., would make it a federal crime to salvage metal from "critical infrastructure" -- including metal from bridges, railroads, schools and roads from which thieves steal manhole covers and sewer caps.
Dissuading people from salvaging is difficult, experts say -- guides to scrapping abound on the Internet, and salvagers trade aboveboard tips and ideas on sites like the Scrap Metal Forum, where users help each other supplement their incomes.
Until the price of metal comes down or the economy recovers, Benash said, salvaging will remain a popular way to make a buck.
"America's starving right now. Most of the people who come to my junkyard are working people. They bring their cat food cans in, their aluminum foil, old air conditioners," Benash said. "They don't have any money."