Until recently, cities all but dismissed the swiping of newspapers, cans and bottles from household recycling bins as the work of homeless people in search of pocket change.
But with the value of recycled materials skyrocketing, the scavenging game has become organized and increasingly pervasive, infuriating residents and costing Orange County cities and waste-disposal firms more than $1 million annually.
"You don't see the mom and pop collecting cans with a shopping cart," said Nanci Gee, recycling coordinator for the city of Orange. "This is big business. These are people making money by stealing from our residents."
The tactics employed by the new breed of scavengers have shocked city officials and residents. Many crews deploy young people on bicycles to scoop up materials and quickly drop them off at the "mother ship"--a pickup truck with a padded bed to reduce noise when cans and bottles are dumped inside, police and city officials said.
Some scavengers communicate by radio and cellular phone, while others attempt to conceal their identities at night by dressing in dark clothes and wearing black face makeup, they said.
In several communities, including Huntington Beach and Orange, the upswing in scavenging has coincided with increases in thefts and other opportunity crimes.
"When one of these people sees an open garage or an expensive bike on a porch, he helps himself," Orange Police Capt. Gene Hernandez said.
Cities have responded by toughening anti-scavenging laws and stationing code-enforcement officers in residential neighborhoods after dark.
The Garden Grove Sanitation District, for example, recently sent a sewer maintenance worker to the sheriff's academy for a month of law enforcement training. The worker now responds to complaints about scavenging and issues citations to those caught in the act.
"We want to let these people know they can't just march in here and take whatever they want," said Ron Cates, the district general manager.
The issue has emerged as a topic at block parties and neighborhood meetings across the county, with homeowners demanding action from elected leaders.
"This might not seem like the most important crime, but people get disturbed by any kind of attack on their personal property or their home," Orange Mayor Joanne Coontz said. "It's something that is close to them."
The problem has its roots in a 1989 state law that requires all cities to reduce the amount of waste they send to landfills by establishing recycling programs. By 1996, cities must cut their landfill deposits by 25% compared to 1990 levels or face fines. By 2000, landfill deposits must be cut in half.
Organized scavenging took off about 1 1/2 years ago, when the value of some recycled materials dramatically increased. A newsprint shortage, for example, caused prices to jump from about $20 a ton to $100 a ton, said Jim Sankey, Huntington Beach's solid-waste manager.
The hardest-hit cities are those that require residents to separate cans, bottles and newspapers into bins, a practice that aids scavengers as they rush to collect materials.
In Orange, cracking down has become a frustrating game of cat-and-mouse. Scavengers frequently change their routes and times to elude detection.
"It becomes an adventure to see if you can place your bins out at a time when they won't get them," said Coontz, whose own home has been hit. The city estimates that $600,000 in materials has been stolen over the past year.
But scavengers have turned to some outlandish strategies, such as driving around in trucks painted to resemble waste-disposal vehicles, officials said. Some thieves "are so brazen that they [work] a block ahead of the recycling truck," Gee said.
Orange has drawn praise from officials across the county for its aggressiveness in dealing with the issue. The city established a squad of police and code enforcement officers to monitor scavenger activities. Those caught receive misdemeanor citations and have their loot confiscated. In a few cases, police have arrested scavengers on suspicion of grand theft because they possessed more than $400 worth of booty.
More than 50 citations have been issued over the past year, producing a significant reduction in trash pillaging, Gee said.
Another curbside standoff is being played out in Huntington Beach and Fountain Valley. The cities represent a less attractive target than Orange because their residents do not separate recycled materials from other household trash. That forces scavengers to rummage through garbage cans.
Still, the situation has alarmed residents. The scavengers "go through [the cans] with a vengeance," Sankey said. "They start throwing things out until they find something they want. [Residents] get up in the morning and see trash all over their yards."
Another neighborhood concern is the intense competitiveness of some scavengers. Residents have reported seeing scavengers actually coming to blows over who gets access to certain streets. Homeowners "fear fists today, knives tomorrow, guns the next day," Sankey said.
Several city officials compared scavenging to tagging--both seemingly minor crimes that get under the skin of residents and can spawn larger problems.
Gee said a key challenge is to make both the public and the court system aware of how strongly cities feel about the issue.