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After more than 170 incidents of stolen copper in the past 15 months, $3-million in damage and hundreds of hours of lost service, BCE Inc.’s BCE-T Bell Canada has filed a lawsuit against an Ontario man accused of copper theft and asked the government to help it crack down on vandals.

The number of thefts of copper equipment has been rising for months and they are particularly frequent in New Brunswick, Ontario and Northern Quebec, Bell said in a news release. Copper wiring, a legacy technology which mainly carries landline services, can be sold illegally for high prices at scrap markets.

These incidents can leave many customers without internet, phone connection and access to emergency services for as long as 12 hours, the telecom said. They could also trigger “widespread network outages,” the company said in legal documents filed with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.

Bell is asking the federal government to raise the fines associated with theft of critical infrastructure and amend the Criminal Code accordingly.

“Extra alarms, security and support from local law enforcement isn’t enough. We need the government’s help in prioritizing increased fines and amendments to the Criminal Code to protect our critical infrastructure,” said Nick Payant, Bell’s vice-president of operations services and core network.

Bell has filed a lawsuit against Sylvain Fleury, an Ontario resident who was arrested in November in association with copper theft, as well an unnamed alleged accomplice.

According to court documents, vandals illegally entered seven tower sites in northern Ontario. There, they cut through fences and opened locked gates to steal telecommunications equipment, including copper wiring, Bell alleges.

According to Bell spokesperson Caroline Audet, the vandals cut the copper directly out of wires attached to poles.

Bell is seeking damages of $300,000, including $100,000 to cover Bell’s lost profits and as fees for trespassing, the same amount to replace and repair the copper and a final $100,000 in punitive damages.

Bell is also pursuing two individuals who it alleges knowingly purchased the stolen copper. In its legal claim, the telecom said these two individuals are liable for conspiracy and unjust enrichment, and asked the court to order Mr. Fleury to disclose the names and addresses of all “accomplices and co-conspirators.” At the time of the theft, the telecom said, copper could be sold to scrap markets at attractive rates.

According to Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) spokesperson Bill Dickson, Mr. Fleury, 43, was arrested in Hearst, Ont., a small community about six hours north of Sudbury. Mr. Fleury could not be reached for comment.

The OPP has investigated several instances of copper theft in recent months, including in the Township of Madoc, where in February a copper line was cut directly from a pole on the side of a highway.

In late March, a theft in New Brunswick left nearly 1,200 Bell Alliant customers in Nasonworth and Oromocto without phone or internet service.

Last winter, Bell Aliant said thefts had occurred almost every night across its Atlantic network. Dana Lohnes, Bell Aliant’s director of field operations for Atlantic Canada, told reporters at the time the company had been required to hire security teams to patrol its towers. He said the company had videos of the tools used to cut down the cables: metal grinders attached to telescopic poles.

Copper thefts surged starting around two decades ago as the price of the commodity skyrocketed. In 2007, Quebec busted an organized-crime operation that stole $2-million in copper from Hydro-Québec and telecommunications companies.

“Copper is critical network infrastructure that Canadians depend upon and copper thieves should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law in all instances,” said Ms. Audet.

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