Latest Urban Crime Caper: Theft of Yesterday's News

LUCIAN CHALFEN was walking home to his Upper East Side apartment last week when he spotted two men throwing bundles of old newspapers, left on the curb for recycling, into a van. Mr. Chalfen, an employee of the Sanitation Department, wasted no time in calling the police who promptly arrested the men.

Another band of newsprint bandits foiled.

Across the nation, the soaring price of old newsprint has created a new crime wave: the theft of old newspapers. And police are taking the capers seriously because they are costing cities money, not only in terms of police resources, but revenue that would normally be earned from recycling newspapers. In some municipalities, the potential income is sizeable enough that thieves are becoming organized.

In Houston, the newsprint crooks have become so brazen that they are following the recycling trucks out of the yard during the day.

''They race in front of the trucks and take the newspapers,'' reports Marina Coryat, a spokeswoman for the Houston Solid Waste Management Department. She reports the Houston Police Department is planning to become more involved.

In the state of Connecticut, local authorities discovered that commercial haulers, licensed to pick up recyclables in Westport and Norwalk, were transferring the recycled newsprint into other trucks. Those trucks sold the newsprint to commercial dealers instead of taking it to the state's recycling plants.

San Francisco estimates it is now losing $10,000 per week to poachers, who are mainly focusing on paper. Berkeley, which is losing $15,000 a month in recyclables to poachers, is starting up a neighborhood watch group to report license plates of vehicles used in filching.

Thieves are adding newsprint to their heist list because the price of old newspapers has soared from about $25 per ton to as high as $160 per ton.

According to the American Forest and Paper Association (AFPA), the price is rising in large part because of a dramatic shift in the industry. Over the past five years, the industry has spent about $10 billion to build papermaking facilities that can use recycled paper. Now, the companies that own these machines are bidding up the price of recycled newsprint to feed into their newly tooled plants.

At the same time, the industry claims the amount of pulp that would normally be used in papermaking has declined because of environmental restrictions.

For example, a significant amount of virgin timber has been taken out of production to protect the Northern spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest. Although most of those logs are used in the housing industry, the waste wood is normally used for paper.

The price turnaround means that city recycling efforts, which have been money losers in the past, are now becoming revenue-generators. For example, a year ago, New York used to pay a processor $30 per ton to take the used papers off its hands. In its new fiscal year, starting July 1, the city expects to earn $18 million from the 1,100 tons of newsprint it collects daily.

With thieves siphoning off the revenue stream, some cities are striking back by making newspaper theft a crime.

Instead of giving violators a civil summons, New York now charges paper thieves with a misdemeanor. The suspects are handcuffed, booked at the local police precinct, and then taken to central booking for arraignment. Since most arrests take place at night, the individual often ends up spending a night in jail.

Houston is fighting back with fines that can top $2,000. The city is placing stickers on its green recycling bins to warn thieves of the tough penalties.

In San Francisco, the city has just added $300,000 per year for police anti-paper-theft overtime.

Clifton, N.J. hired a special policeman to try to cut down on newsprint thieves who were swiping 30 tons of newsprint per month. The policeman caught five individuals, who were fined as much as $1,000, but, ''they are still doing it'' reports Al Dubois, recycling director for the city.

On July 20, eight northern California cities held a conference to deal with the issue. Among some of the suggestions:

* Work with neighborhoods to report poachers. This allows a city to map a thief's patterns and habits.

* Get the police to cooperate by sending a squad car to areas where poaching is taking place. If possible,make theft of recyclables a criminal offense.

* Get the police to focus on the vehicles. Some communities permit confiscation of the vans and trucks. Look for other violations, such as non-payment of business fees or taxes.

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