Friday 19 July 2019

Private investigators hired to track copper wire gangs

Irish Rail forced to act over costly cable thefts

Caught in the act – metal thefts have been on the rise across Ireland
Caught in the act – metal thefts have been on the rise across Ireland

Niall O'Connor

Irish Rail has been forced to hire private investigators in a bid to combat the theft of copper cable from overhead Dart lines, the Irish Independent can reveal.

The semi-state body enlisted the services of private investigators (PIs) after "large quantities" of wire were stolen in South County Dublin.

Irish Rail . Photo: Frank McGrath
Irish Rail . Photo: Frank McGrath

A senior Irish Rail official decided to hire PIs, otherwise known as tracing agents, in a bid to catch the culprits.

But Irish Rail bosses were left alarmed after it emerged the PIs in question placed tracking devices on people's vehicles as part of a surveillance operation that lasted several weeks. Doing so is in breach of data protection laws.

The extraordinary events are detailed in a dossier compiled by industry sources that was leaked to the Irish Independent.

As part of the surveillance operation, PIs followed the suspects from their home in a south Dublin housing estate, and used footage from Irish Rail cameras in a bid to build profiles.

The "observation and tracking of suspects was to be done through the use of manpower and static cameras," according to documents seen by this newspaper.

It's understood a senior official within Irish Rail sanctioned the hiring of the PIs, which charge hefty fees for their services, amid concerns over safety as a result of the copper theft.

The theft itself involved large quantities of copper wire being stripped from a Dart line between Bray and Killiney late last year.

A garda investigation into the issue has also been launched.

Metal theft has become a significant issue in recent years across the country.

In many cases where metal is stripped to be resold by criminals, the damage caused when it is removed far exceeds the value of the commodity stolen.

Experts have estimated that it can be as much as 50 times in some cases.

Copper wire is particularly popular for thieves to target but electricity cables, beer kegs, road signs, letterboxes, roofs of churches and vacant building and even goal posts have also been targeted in the past.

Gardaí believe some of the trade in stolen metal is driven by unscrupulous dealers who continue to carry out business with gangs.

In a further twist to the case involving Irish Rail, the Irish Independent can reveal the PIs are suspected of putting the spy equipment underneath vehicles belonging to individuals not suspected of having any involvement in the theft of the copper.

Assistant Data Protection Commissioner Tony Delaney launched an investigation into the matter, which found:

No proper contract was put in place for the task for which the PI was hired.

Irish Rail's chief executive was "not informed" of the hiring of the PI in question.

The semi-state body did not sanction or instruct the PI to use vehicle tracking devices.

The PI in question has not been hired since.

Irish Rail has said it sincerely regrets the occurrence and has apologised to the individuals affected. It's understood solicitors for Irish Rail are in contact with those affected in terms of agreeing a resolution.

The semi-state company carried out a review of its procedures regarding the hiring of private investigators, which determined that all "methods" used by PIs in the future must be specifically detailed at tender stage.

A spokesperson for Irish Rail said the company did not wish to comment.

But Dermot O'Leary, general secretary of the National Bus and Rail Union, said: "The theft of copper wire is a criminal offence and should be investigated by the gardaí," Mr O'Leary said.

"Whilst we accept there are potential safety consequences associated with this type of crime, having private investigators bumbling around Keystone cop style is surely not an appropriate image for a taxpayer funded public transport company such as Iarnród Éireann."

Irish Independent

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