Employees at the Salt Lake City offices of a Utah nonprofit were surprised earlier this month to find two of their vehicles had been hit by thieves. The criminals didn’t break in to steal cash or a stereo system: They were after the vehicles’ catalytic converters — a part that helps to filter out toxic emissions from vehicles. The thieves were likely after the tiny amount of platinum inside, a very rare metal worth about $1,600 per ounce.
"I was just kind of baffled," said Janine Donald, the director of Splore, which organizes outdoor trips for people with disabilities. With two vehicles in its fleet suddenly out of commission, Splore had to cancel a couple of scheduled trips the week of the Jan. 14 thefts. And the estimated $3,400 in replacement costs put an unexpected financial burden on the small nonprofit, Donald said.
Donald said she never thought about catalytic converters until they were suddenly gone. Most people don’t. And in the middle of winter, most people probably aren’t thinking about air conditioners or sprinkler systems, either. But all of these items contain tiny amounts of valuable metals such as platinum and copper that many criminals steal and then sell for quick cash. Current commodity prices put copper at about $3.75 per pound.
Unfortunately, the damage they cause far exceeds the worth of the haul.
"They’re causing $10,000 worth of damage and getting $200 for what they stole," said Salt Lake City police Detective Robert Ungricht.
Metal theft has become a widespread petty crime that is catching the attention of state lawmakers this session. It can cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars every year, and police, state officials and metal recyclers all seem to agree the problem has no easy solution.
A crime of opportunity » Metal theft isn’t new, but its popularity among criminals has soared along with rising commodity prices, according to Ungricht.
"It’s definitely a money generator for them," the Salt Lake detective said of metal thieves, who are often trying to get their hands on enough money to feed a drug addiction. Of the offenders Ungricht has dealt with, most admit they’re trying to score money for drugs.
"It’s a crime of opportunity, just like any crime," he said.
It also poses much less risk than other illegal means of getting money. Thieves who are caught are usually charged with petty larceny and spend a few days in jail at the most, Ungricht said.
But such thefts add up, and since government agencies are among the most popular targets, those losses can be passed on to taxpayers, Ungricht said.
John Gleason, spokesman for the Utah Department of Transportation, said the department’s many street and freeway lights, freeway signs and cameras are popular targets.
Data from UDOT suggest that metal theft costs hundreds of thousands of dollars every year and has been on the rise in recent years. In fiscal 2010, UDOT reported a loss of $350,000. That amount rose to $410,000 in fiscal year 2012, and so far this year, $190,000 worth of metal has been stolen.
Gleason said UDOT has responded recently by replacing copper wire with less valuable aluminum, but the replacements are usually done on an as-needed basis.
Criminals will often try to blend in by wearing hard hats or construction vests while stripping copper wires from UDOT property. The class of thieves runs the gamut as well.
"You have varying degrees of expertise here," Gleason said. Some people are amateurs, but others seem to know exactly what they’re looking for.
"Maybe in another life they were an electrician," he said of some of the more skilled thieves.
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