By Preston Sparks
December 8, 2008
Last week, Cicely Luis witnessed yet another case of a foreclosed home attracting criminals.

Cicely Luis, a Realtor who lists homes for foreclosure companies,
has seen several of them become the target of burglars taking copper
wire from air conditioning units. The remaining pieces of one such unit
sit behind a home for sale off Side Saddle Court in south Augusta.

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"That’s very prevalent in vacant houses, and it really has been for
the past year-and-a-half," said Ms. Luis, who lists local properties
for foreclosure companies. "I deal with a lot of foreclosures. … This
is not uncommon at all."

Ms. Luis’ most recent case was reported Nov. 25 and involved a home
in the 700 block of Hall Street in Augusta. Someone had broken into the
house and took copper wires from an air conditioning unit in the attic
and another unit in the backyard, according to a Richmond County
Sheriff’s Office report.

The total damage: $2,300.

Police agree that such cases occur often, and, with an increasing
number of homes vacant because of foreclosures, authorities say they
are hoping the public will keep them informed of suspicious activity at
such sites.

"The road deputy is not going to know unless he gets a complaint," Richmond County sheriff’s Lt. Tony Walden said.

He said squatters also have been a problem.

"You get some houses people just set up a clubhouse in," he said.

Police in Columbia County also have noticed crimes at abandoned homes, mostly vandalism by teenagers.

"We rely heavily on the neighborhoods to advise us (if there are
unauthorized occupants at a vacant home)," said Columbia County
sheriff’s Capt. Steve Morris. "It’s not a crisis here yet, but we want
to address it here now before it becomes one."

Capt. Morris said his department is responding with concentrated patrols.

"I would say that with the rise in foreclosures, more patrols are
required in an effort to thwart crimes," he said. Such crime could
spread "if it’s left unchecked. One abandoned building or abandoned
home could ruin a neighborhood."

A 2005 study by the Georgia Institute of Technology and the
Woodstock Institute showed that a yearly increase of about 2.8
foreclosures per 100 owner-occupied homes results in a 6.7 percent
increase in neighborhood violent crime.

According to figures released in November by the U.S. Department of
Housing and Urban Development, 6.8 percent of residential homes in
Augusta have gone through foreclosure, the second-highest rate in the
state and the highest outside metro Atlanta. In early November, Augusta
had 142 foreclosed homes, including 95 in south Augusta, according to a
Nov. 11 Augusta Chronicle story. In Columbia County, there have been
896 dispossesory filings on homes through November compared with 869
for all of 2007, according to Columbia County Magistrate Court records.

Although police say it’s hard to tell how many involve
foreclosures, burglaries are up in Richmond County so far this year,
with 2,634 reported from January through October, the most recent month
for which statistics are available. That’s 332 more than in the same
period last year. In Columbia County, burglaries seem to be holding
steady, with 345 reported in 2007 and 328 so far this year.

Ms. Luis said she sees more problems with foreclosed homes in Augusta, but "it does happen in Martinez, too."

In Aiken County, authorities are not aware of similar problems, but
the sheriff’s office doesn’t separate such cases from other vandalism
cases or burglaries.

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