Joe Henry is on a first name basis with bank tellers across his hometown of Medford, Ore., scouring 15 banks a week with one thing on his mind: pennies.
Henry is often seen toting around bags of pennies, some he buys, others he changes back in for cash, which seems a little strange at first. He's not a collector, he is what's known as a "penny hoarder" and he is not alone.
Inside a shed next to his house, Henry has orange tubs filled with 200,000 pennies, and he spends hours sorting through roll after roll of the coins. But it's not just any and all pennies, Henry is only interested in those that are dated from 1982 and earlier because those are the coins made with 95 percent copper. A copper penny is worth more than other pennies -- now mostly made of zinc -- currently priced at $0.024.
"The copper has such a different sound than zinc pennies do," Henry said. "Real money has that definite sound of money and if you listen to a modern zinc penny, they don't sound the same, they sound sort of tinny."
Henry even has a $500 home counting machine to separate out the copper ones.
Much like the resurging obsession with gold, the price of copper has skyrocketed in recent years and the rising price has led to some unusual sprees. Thieves have been exploiting the value hidden in obscure items, stripping copper wiring from phone and utility cables, from construction sites, even from a 122-year-old copper bell that was stolen from a San Francisco cathedral.
In San Diego, so much copper wiring has been stolen from eight different city parks, that soccer teams can't practice because the field lights stopped working.
But penny hoarders aren't thieves, just opportunists. There are a slew of listing for pennies in bulk on eBay, but what's amazing is they include listings for $10 in pennies being sold for $20 dollars. If you think only a sucker would pay two cents for a penny, you're missing out on a business opportunity that Adam Youngs, who runs a massive penny sorting operation in Portland, Ore., has perfected.
He explained how he can sell a $100 worth of pennies for $176, when shipping and packaging are included.
Youngs' operation, the Portland Mint, is locked inside a secure facility that deals with armored cars -- selling and shipping to clients in every state -- and works in pennies by the ton. He said he has clients with deep pockets who are storing huge sacks of pennies and he has inquires from hedge funds.
"Just in face value alone, about $270,000 dollars [in pennies] right now," Youngs said. "That is just the face value, that is not even the copper value. The copper value is about three times that much."
Clients use Youngs because he separates copper pennies from the chump change -- the newer pennies that are only worth $0.01.
But in the weird world of penny hoarding, getting to the copper is a very big problem. It's illegal to melt pennies an there is an obscure federal law that makes it illegal to transport more than $5 in pennies out of the country.
Penny hoarders know this of course, but they also know something else. In what could be the biggest legislation to hit the U.S. Mint in 50 years, officials are now looking at the composition of pennies and nickels and considering an overhaul. If the laws change and the mint decides to abolish the penny, people would be free to melt them down for the copper.
A penny saved, many times over, could be a whole lot earned.
- Joe Henry