MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- Officials say criminals are targeting siding on homes -- causing tens of thousands of dollars in damage to earn maybe $50 to $100. It is happening across Milwaukee -- but particularly in areas with plenty of vacant homes.
Officials say scrappers are turning vacant homes into eyesores.
FOX6 News spoke with an undercover officer who specializes in tracking down scrappers. He says he catches criminals in the act every week. He estimates Milwaukee has about 300 repeat scrapping offenders.
"Every time they change or the theft changes, I change my hours," the undercover officer told FOX6 News.
Last week, a neighbor caught scrappers stripping aluminum siding from a Sherman Park home around 9:00 a.m. He called police and they fled -- leaving thousands of dollars in damage.
Milwaukee Police Captain Chad Wagner says scrappers often start by stripping siding, then grow bolder -- targeting more valuable metals.
"Siding, gutters, copper pipe, electrical wire, bronze plaques from cemeteries," Captain Wagner said.
Officials say it is a problem that has been growing since 2007, when the mortgage crisis left many homes vacant. At the same time, the value of recyclable materials went up.
Police say oftentimes, the criminals belong to well-organized rings, and come from Chicago.
"I think the youngest person we arrested was 12. The oldest was in their 70s," Captain Wagner said.
The city offers a $1,000 reward for tips that lead to conviction.
"It helps to have people aware and watching and listening and calling," Captain Wagner said.
Police say they're working to strengthen scrapping laws so they can charge people more consistently. Often, a scrapper will only get probation.
However, fines for those caught scrapping without a license can range from nearly $400 for a first offense to $1,300 for repeat offenses.