Cities and counties are battling manhole-cover thefts, a crime spree that police tie to the weak economy.

Hundreds of 200-pound covers have disappeared in three months in California, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Georgia as scrap metal prices rise.

"It's a sign of the times," says Sgt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff's Office in Georgia, where 28 manhole covers disappeared in April and May. "When the economy gets bad, people start stealing iron."

It's the first year he has seen such thefts since he started with the department 16 years ago.

The price of heavy melt steel, the medium grade used for manhole covers, has increased from $329 per metric ton in January to $519, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. A thief can get $10 to $15 for a manhole cover, says Ryan Alsop, spokesman for the Long Beach (Calif.) Water Department.

Long Beach has lost more than 80 covers this year. People who have damaged their cars driving over manholes have filed claims with the city, Alsop says.

"Our No. 1 concern" is safety, he says. "A small kid can fall into these holes," which can be 20 feet deep.

It costs Long Beach $500 to buy and install a manhole cover, Alsop says. In Georgia, which has lower labor costs, the price tag is $200, Baker says.

In Philadelphia, two children fell into uncovered drains, says Martin McCall, a supervisor at the Philadelphia Water Department. They were not badly injured. McCall says drain covers disappear daily — more than 600 in the past year.