After enjoying a relaxed evening train ride from the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, Larry Becker returned to his 2004 Toyota Highlander sitting in the parking lot.
He said the catalytic converter was stolen, ripped from the underside of his SUV. He paid $192 to have the part replaced, he said.
Since January, Chattanooga police have investigated more than 40 catalytic converter thefts, said Lt. Bobby Rodgers, commander of the property crimes division.
“People were just pulling up to parking lots — hospitals, malls, businesses — and just stealing the catalytic converters right off people’s cars,” he said. “It got so bad, one man was riding around with a soldering torch and all the equipment in the back of his truck.”
Metal theft has become so widespread the Tennessee General Assembly passed legislation two weeks ago to make selling stolen metal and car parts more difficult. The governor signed the bill into law Monday.
“I know it’s a problem still,” said Janice Atkinson, spokeswoman for the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department. “We deal with it and so does the city. It’s a daily thing.”
Chattanooga police say scrap metal sales involve an increasing amount of stolen material with precious-metal components because resale values have risen over the past few years. Thieves crawl under houses to steal pipes, remove wiring and plumbing from unfinished construction projects and climb to the top of buildings to strip wire from industrial-sized air conditioning units to sell to scrap dealers.
Particularly appealing these days are catalytic converters and specialized cables that contain platinum and rhodium, said Ricky Guest, owner of Guest Muffler in Rossville.
“These poor people come out to their cars and their parts are gone. It can cost up to $1,500 to get it fixed sometimes,” Mr. Guest said.
Pure platinum sells for as much as $1,000 an ounce on the open market, but local recycling companies say they give about $50 for catalytic converters.
Replacing them is pricier. The typical repair is about $200, mechanics said. But some car repairs are more expensive, with European imports being the priciest.
Most at risk are vehicles that sit high off the ground, such as pickup trucks and SUVs, Mr. Guest said. Toyota trucks and SUVs have been the most targeted, based on what Mr. Guest has seen.
Lt. Rodgers said his 12 property crimes investigators and two sergeants investigate about 35 property crimes per month.
“We’ve been pretty successful just catching people right in the act of stealing this stuff,” he said.
Under the new law, dealers who buy and sell scrap metal must register with the state Department of Commerce and Insurance by Oct. 1. Scrap metal dealers would face criminal penalties if they do not register and could be charged if found buying stolen metal.
For recycling companies that do business the legitimate way, the new law should be welcomed news, said Abe Boackle, general manager for CMC Recycling in Chattanooga.
“We don’t want that sort of business anyway,” he said. “We don’t want the stuff obtained illegally.”
People selling to dealers would have to present a valid photo state or federal identification and provide a thumbprint. Dealers would be required to keep transaction records for three years.
If the metal being purchased includes copper or is a catalytic converter, payment may be made only by check, according to the law.
Lt. Rodgers hopes the new laws will deter metal theft. But he worries criminals will work a black market in metals, selling to friends who don’t mind unloading the metal and showing their IDs.
Adam Crisp covers education issues for the Times Free Press. He joined the paper's staff in 2007 and initially covered crime, public safety, courts and general assignment topics. Prior to Chattanooga, Crisp was a crime reporter at the Savannah Morning News and has been a reporter and editor at community newspapers in southeast Georgia. In college, he led his student paper to a first-place general excellence award from the Georgia College Press Association. He earned ...