AUGUSTA — As thieves break into homes to steal copper, Maine lawmakers are taking steps to put more muscle in the law that’s aimed at discouraging metal thefts and tracking down unscrupulous sellers.

“It’s not just a continuing problem,” Rep. Thomas Longstaff said after the House gave final approval to his bill Wednesday with a 126-2 vote. “It’s getting worse.”

The Waterville Democrat’s bill, which went to the Senate for its final OK, was introduced at the request of Maine police chiefs, who found loopholes in the current law that let some thieves sell their ill-gotten metals. Maine’s present law prohibits the sale of scrap metal obtained illegally and prevents junk metal dealers from paying cash for metal.

While the law may have discouraged some thefts, it has not stamped out the problem. In some cases, thieves appear to be getting bolder.

Barely two blocks from the State House, thieves broke into an unoccupied rental home recently and took not only copper piping, but also the furnace, the circulator and two oil tanks, for an estimated loss of more than $5,000. Also in Augusta, eight 100-gallon propane tanks were stolen from four businesses, a loss of a few thousand dollars.

In Lewiston, police nabbed a man who was stealing copper from a vacant home. Officers recovered a hacksaw, clamps and metal cutters. A former Bath Iron Works employee was caught stealing nearly two tons of copper cable from the Navy contractor.

Utilities also have been plagued. In 2009, copper grounding wire was stolen from at least 40 utility poles along a 14-mile stretch from Presque Isle to Mars Hill in northern Maine. Utilities, which supported passage of Longstaff’s bill, also have had copper stolen from their substations.

The head of the Maine State Police, Col. Robert Williams, sees a strong link between copper pipe and wire theft and prescription drug abuse, which requires users to raise fast cash.

“Metal theft has become one of the – if not the – largest and most time-consuming problems the state police and law enforcement are dealing with,” Williams said. The poor economy and high metal prices exacerbate the problem, police say.

Longstaff’s bill attacks the problem on several fronts.

It broadens the definition of “scrap metal processor” to include those who operate from trucks and move from site to site. Sellers would have to sign statements saying they own or are authorized to sell the scrap metal. Rules for checking the identification of sellers are tightened to include photo IDs or vehicle registration numbers.