WASHINGTON — Protecting your quarters — your silver — has always been a laundry operator’s concern, but now operators may have to worry about their copper. Spurred by the skyrocketing prices for metals, small businesses are being subjected to metal theft.In Mississippi, copper thieves hit a coin laundry twice. First, thieves broke into the boiler room and cut all the pipes to steal copper. About a week later, the air conditioning unit was broken into for its copper components.Skyrocketing prices for metals, especially copper, have turned a small problem into a major problem costing more than $1 billion a year, according to the U.S. Dept. of Energy. Recent financial reports indicated copper prices were around $3.81 per pound, compared to around 75 cents per pound five years ago. As a result, pipes, wires, cables, gutters, etc. are being torn from walls and buildings. One common theft is stripping rooftop air units.The problem, in many cases, is that while thieves can get away with small amounts (often $15 to $30) of copper, the repair cost to fix things can be exorbitant. For example, thieves recently ripped the copper out of a unit that runs a supermarket’s beverage coolers. The small amount of copper stolen resulted in a $20,000 repair cost, the owners say.Local governments are aware of the situation, and legislation is being proposed around the country to deal with this growing problem.In Jackson, Miss., the City Council will consider an ordinance that would require anyone selling copper to have a business letter stating where the copper originated.In Oregon, the legislature is considering modifying the existing statute of First Degree Theft to include any amount of metal stolen. Other parts of the plan would clarify purchasing guidelines to prohibit recyclers and scrap metal dealers from receiving any coated metal that has been melted, or wiring that had the coating burned off.New York state lawmakers have passed legislation making it more difficult for thieves to sell copper and other scrap metals. The legislation requires anyone selling $50 or more in of scrap metal to provide photo identification. Dealers who purchase the material must then keep various records of the transactions on file for potential police review.