Something wasn't right with Old Betsy. After a long day parked at the office, the 1991 Toyota truck started with a roar that "sounded like NASCAR," says owner Michael Belef. When he looked underneath, two sawed-off ends of pipe stared back at him where the catalytic converter used to sit.
Thieves have been stealing catalytic converters across the region, including some from the same guarded parking lot in Silicon Valley. The pilfered parts are sold to scrap metal recyclers, some of whom will pay $50 to $100 for the precious metals inside.
The spree is part of the widespread and rapidly growing crime of metal theft. Filchers are lifting everything from copper wiring to aluminum beer kegs to the brass flower holders at cemeteries. The more audacious are sawing down live electric poles and ripping siding off strangers' homes.
The reason: International demand, especially from China's factories, has sent metal prices soaring, say experts.
"There are a couple of things going on. One is a lack of investment in the infrastructure for more production when the prices were low," says Mary Poulton, a mining expert at the University of Arizona. "The second is China and India coming on so strong, so quickly. So you've got a decreased capacity for commodities worldwide and a drastically increased consumption."
China is stringing power and telephone lines into its western interior, while the growing ranks of Asia's middle class clamor for modern housing and cars – all of which require lots of metal, she says.
Prices are high for copper, stainless steel, aluminum, and three metals found in catalytic converters: platinum, palladium, and rhodium. Especially in the case of copper, thefts have increased with the prices.
"[Copper prices] would drop below a dollar, and the thefts would tail off, and it would come up over a dollar, and the thefts would go up," says Bob Sypult, security director for Southern California Edison, who has followed the issue for many years. "But it peaked out here last year at $4.00 a pound."
The spike in thefts has become so widespread that more than 30 state legislatures are considering legislation to tackle the problem, according to Steve Hirsch, legislative director for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) based in Washington.
National statistics are not kept, and local police often don't track metal heists separately from general theft. However, major industries have some numbers:
• Farmers in California's Central Valley reported metal thefts last year totaling more than $6 million, according to the ACTION Project in Visalia, Calif. The number of reported incidents skyrocketed by 400 percent over the previous year. Thieves typically make off with irrigation pipe and the copper wiring in irrigation pumps, endangering crops.
• Metal thefts against the electric industry rose 300 percent over the past two years, says Mr. Sypult. People are taking whatever wires they can get to resell the copper, sometimes breaking into substations at considerable risk to themselves, repairmen, and others nearby. Successful thieves can make off with $400 to $500 worth of copper, but half a dozen die each year trying.
Those tracking the problem say the crime is often tied to drugs. "The general profile of a lot of these guys that we caught tends to be someone in their thirties; they tend to be white and methamphetamine addicts," says ACTION's director, Bill Yoshimoto, who also works for the district attorney in Tulare County, Calif.
Nabbing the thieves often involves the cooperation of scrap metal recyclers.
"The real key to working the issue: You can have all the metal in the world, but if you don't have an outlet to sell it, it's kind of pointless," says Sypult. "So we work very closely with the scrap dealer industry and law enforcement to ensure the process is as well-policed and managed as possible."
At the national level, the scrap industry group ISRI has created an e-mail alert system that notifies members of metal thefts reported to police.
"[Scrap recycling] saves a lot of energy and avoids material going to landfill and helps the environment, and so we want to encourage that. And the vast majority – 99 plus percent – of the transactions are legitimate," says Mr. Hirsch. "Our concern is just not discouraging legitimate recycling by a concern for a relatively small number of thefts."
That means giving scrap yards a certain amount of leeway in deciding how best to get and record positive identification from suppliers and their materials, he says.
A bill in the California legislature would tighten such requirements already placed on scrap yards. Currently, recyclers are obligated to keep written records of sales that include identification information and a signed statement from the seller that they are the rightful owners of the metal. The new regulations would require scrap dealers to pay for metals with a check rather than cash and to hold on to the materials for at least 10 days.
The check requirement worries some dealers. Custom Alloy Scrap Sales in Oakland, Calif., says that cash payments allow their scrap suppliers to go out and procure more metals the same day.
But all yards contacted said they want to do their part to crack down on theft. After all, it hurts the image of their businesses – and many have been victims themselves.
The manager for Alco Iron & Metal Co. in San Leandro says he has come to work and found would-be thieves tangled up in the razor wire protecting the yard. He is confident that his operation completely shuns stolen materials through cooperation with the local police, ID scans, and questioning of buyers.
"The first thing we tell [dealers] is we don't buy stolen material," says manager Emilio Zamora. "I believe every scrap metal company is different, but we follow the rules around here. We go strictly by the book because we've got a lot to lose."