The warning came from the Energy Networks Association, an umbrella organisation for cables, pipes and wires providers across the UK, which is urging the Scottish Government to introduce powers being implemented in England.
The UK-wide crimewave is believed to be fuelled by demand from China with the stolen metal being shipped out in containers. The illegal trade is already putting lives at risk, police say, particularly where padlocks have been stolen from electricity substations and cables from railways.
A new Metal Theft (Prevention) Bill was introduced in Westminster by MP Graham Jones last Tuesday. It proposes tighter licensing for scrap metal dealers, with police being given the power to search and close down premises if stolen goods are discovered.
Stolen property would be classed as criminal gains, putting metal thieves at risk of being stripped of their assets under Proceeds of Crime law.
So far the Scottish Government says it is only considering launching a consultation on introducing similar measures.
The cost of metal theft in Scotland is now estimated to be running at around £100 million a year. There were 161 incidents of copper cable being stolen from railways in 2010 – almost treble the previous year – with a further 115 this year so far. The increase reflects the almost record price of copper, which reached a high two years ago, and now stands around £4,600 a tonne.
Recent weeks have seen the theft of “live” line side cable in Ardrossan, Ayrshire, signalling cable stolen in Wishaw, North Lanarkshire, lighting cable cut in the Gilshochill area of north Glasgow, and an aluminium barrier stolen from Kelvinbridge in Glasgow’s west end.
Earlier this month, thousands of pounds of copper piping and data cable were stolen in a raid on a new school under construction in Annandale and a cattle grid was stolen from a road near Portree in Skye.
Another frequent target is electricity cables and concerns are growing that their theft will result in casualties. Mandy Haeburn-Little, executive director of the Scottish Business Crime Centre, said: “The worst aspect of some metal theft is that it could affect innocent people going to work or travelling about. Removing padlocks from power sub-stations or removing metal from railway lines could be lethal.”
The greatest risk, say police, is to workers who have to enter dangerous situations to repair the damage done by theft.
Chief Superintendent Ellie Bird, of the British Transport Police, said: “If you steal cabling that affects the signalling then you are potentially making that environment unsafe and forcing people to work in an unsafe environment.
“It will not lead to a collision as we will stop the train, but [it will cause] disruption.”
The Energy Networks Association has held talks with the Scottish Government.
Spokesman Tim Field said: “We would want to see the same legislation brought about in Scotland. If it’s made harder to do it in England and Wales it will only serve to push crime north of the Border.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We take metal theft extremely seriously.
“That is why the justice secretary is joining British Transport Police and other partners taking part in a multi-agency day of action next week.”