Aside from auto design engineers, garage mechanics and gear heads, who cares about a run-of-the-mill catalytic converter?

Increasingly, scrap metal thieves do, and here’s why.

Catalytic converters, one of the key cogs in an auto’s emission control system, are a veritable treasure chest of valuable scrap metal components. Converters include three precious metals: platinum, palladium, and rhodium. Each of these metals trade on the global commodity exchanges and, as of early March, were commanding high prices: platinum at $1,070 an ounce; palladium at $205 an ounce; and rhodium at $1,200 an ounce. That’s a $2,495 payday for a scrap metal thief who harvests one ounce of each of these.

The hours are good, too. Snagging a converter on the sly isn’t difficult for someone who knows that they’re doing—thieves often make off with them in 60 seconds or less.

For consumers who are the victims of scrap metal theft, the cost can be high. Replacing a catalytic converter can cost up to $2,000.

School of Hock In Session
And it’s not just car engine parts that are hot. Bales of copper wire, old gold or silver jewelry, coin sets and even bronze grave markers and beer kegs are targets for scrap metal thieves these days. And all they have to do is melt them down to render them virtually untraceable.

Federal and state law enforcement officials are taking aggressive steps in combating what they see as an alarming uptick in scrap metal thefts.

According to data provided by the National Insurance Crime Bureau, scrap metal theft trends mirror the health of the overall economy. In 2008, when the U.S. economy was already nine months deep into the current recession, copper prices peaked at approximately $9,000 per metric ton between April and June of 2008. “During that same three-month span, insurance claims for metal thefts were most numerous, totaling 2,052,” reports the NICB. But back in 2006, when the good times were rolling, economically speaking, scrap metal theft was down. “By comparison, claims totaled only 483 for the same three months in 2006 when the price of copper was just starting to rise from about $5,000 a metric ton,” states the NICB.

Heavy Protection Measures
In Washington, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), have rolled out a new bill called the Metal Theft Prevention Act aimed at cracking down on scrap metal thieves. The bill would require better documentation of scrap metal transactions and would prohibit cash deals above $75.

A handful of states are following along. A new bill in Oregon bans the sale of catalytic converters without a permit. Michigan already has a law on the books making the sale or purchase of stolen scrap metal a felony, and Georgia has launched the Active Metal Theft Task Force that identifies potential stolen scrap metal on an email distribution list.

What can consumers do to protect their valuable scrap metal from theft? Here are some tips culled from law enforcement agencies actively targeting scrap metal theft:

  • Secure your car. Keep your catalytic converter safe by keeping your car locked in the garage. If you don’t have a garage, install a car alarm and look into the CatClamp, a theft-proof cage that surrounds your converter.
  • Get a shed. Most towns and cities require a building permit for more sizeable construction jobs. To scrap metal thieves, that’s an open invitation. So keep your copper tubing and bronze valves and clamps safe by placing them inside a storage shed, or in your garage, and lock those units up tight.
  • Just screw it. Protect aluminum gutters or copper spouts by installing screws or rivets to the metal. Time is a scrap metal thief’s enemy, so an extra 20 minutes to unscrew a gutter will discourage the most hardened scrap-stealers.
  • Get a safe. For gold, silver and valuable coins, security gurus say that precious metals like gold and silver should be locked away in a home safe or at a safe deposit box at your bank. That’s pretty much non-negotiable.
  • Stay out of the dark. Leave your front door light on at night or install a motion sensor light in your yard.
  • Show thieves the door. Make sure your front door is solid. Steel construction is best. Desperate thieves can easy break through a hollow door.
  • Keep keys safe. Do not leave keys in obvious hiding places like under a doormat or on a nearby windowsill. Better to take a small tin box, place your key in it, and bury it under a few inches of sod near your door.
  • Travel smart. This tip is from the New York City Police Department: If you’re traveling, leave your valuables in the hotel safe box. Also, make sure you have a friend or family member check your house while you’re gone.

It’s a tough economy out there and scrap metal thieves are getting increasingly brazen. For more information on scrap metal thefts, take a look at the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s strategic report (pdf).

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