LONDON — Police have warned of a bizarre crime wave sweeping Britain, in which thieves are stripping millions of dollars' worth of metal off buildings to be shipped to China and other countries, where demand is soaring.
Thousands of properties — including hundreds of churches and other historic buildings with lead roofs — have been targeted by organized gangs who sell the metal to unscrupulous dealers.
It's then shipped overseas, as scrap or after being melted down, to countries such as India, China and Dubai, which are struggling to find enough materials to keep their booming building industries supplied.
According to Ecclesiastical Insurance Group, which provides coverage for most Church of England properties, lead thefts have tripled. Copper thefts have multiplied by 10 since 2005. In the past 16 months, they have received 750 claims, totaling $2.5 million.
"These people have to be organized, because of the amounts they are getting away with," said company spokesman Chris Pitt. "These buildings will never be the same again once they've been stripped in this way."
He said the gangs are also stealing bells and ripping lightning conductors from spires.
Among the hundreds of churches targeted have been the 13th-century St. Nicholas' Church in Buckinghamshire, which suffered more than $20,000 in damages, and St. Mary's Church in Suffolk.
The Ragged School Museum — a local history museum in a historic building in east London — suffered $40,000 of damage when lead was stolen from its roof.
"Any building that looks old is being targeted," said the museum's director, Eleanor Clark.