Police in England are setting up a nationwide task force to tackle what they say is an "explosion" in thefts of metal which is then sold on as scrap.
Thieves are targeting everything from manhole covers to old cars
School roofs, statues and power lines have all been targeted as millions of pounds worth of metal has been stolen.
British Transport Police, which is leading the task force, said the theft of rail signalling copper had become its biggest problem after terrorism.
Police believe the demand for metal in India and China is forcing prices up.
Copper is now worth £4,000 a tonne, twice as much as two years ago.
BBC Breakfast has obtained figures which show that in Cambridgeshire metal theft is up 170% in a year, in West Mercia 120%, in the West Midlands 112% and 100% in Warwickshire and Sussex.
New hi-tech marking systems mean it is easier for police to identify stolen metals and cables and hundreds of arrests are being made every week, but thefts are continuing to rise.
Deputy Chief Constable Paul Crowther, of British Transport Police, said "huge money" and "huge disruption" were involved in the theft and sale of scrap metal.
"We have seen an explosion in the number of crimes that have taken place," he said.
"It ranges from the opportunist theft of a few hundred metres of cable to serious large-scale criminality.
"There is only one outlet for this metal to go and we are working with scrap metal dealers and warning them not to accept this stolen property."
He warned anyone found to have accepted such material would "face the full force of the law".
Britain is the fifth biggest exporter of scrap metal in the world and the metal recycling industry insists it is doing everything it can to prevent stolen metals passing through its sites.
Lindsay Millington, director general of the British Metals Recycling Association, said: "We take details from everyone when they bring metal in, but what is certain is that around the corner there is another yard operating, which is not a member of our regulatory system, where no questions are asked."
Michael Tripp, of Ecclesiastical Insurance which insures about 1700 churches, told BBC Breakfast the problem was of "epidemic" proportions.
"It's amazing the brass nerve if you like of the thieves," he added. "We've had 1,400 claims from churches alone costing nearly £5m.
"And of course it's not just the theft of the metal, it's the damage after the theft of the metal - the water ingress, the destruction to precious things in churches."
Live mains cut
Other areas affected by metal thefts include Norfolk, which began an operation to clamp down on the crime last month after large quantities of copper, lead, aluminium and stainless steel were stolen from compounds in recent months.
In Cambridgeshire, police say thefts are costing the county £500,000 a month and they are to work with scrap metal dealers and local utility companies, which are often hardest hit, to try to identify those responsible.
Last week at Upwood Primary School, near Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, thieves stripped a huge section of the copper roof overnight, leaving three classrooms unusable and the school with a £30,000 repair bill.
School governor Fiona Hopkins said "everyone is stunned, it's a total logistical and financial nightmare".
In other cases, a bronze statue of former Olympic champion Steve Ovett disappeared in Brighton and church bells in Devon were silenced by thieves.
Across the country, drain covers have been stolen and police say in some cases thieves have cut through live electricity and gas mains to steal metal.