When detectives responded to a theft at a fenced-in lot a couple weeks ago, they found tools commonly used to cut through metal, a hole in the fence, vehicles no longer capable of reducing harmful emissions, and a security guard — who apparently slept through the burglary — with some explaining to do.
Detectives in the Metro Nashville Police Department’s Auto Theft Unit have again seen a rise in the number of catalytic converters stolen off of cars. It appears to be linked to the increase in the price of metal.
Thieves go after the converters, which contain precious metals such as platinum, palladium and rhodium, because they’re easy to reach on many vehicles and can turn a quick buck at scrap metal recycling shops. It’s a cyclical process that comes and goes with the fluctuation of metal prices, but some law enforcement agencies across the country have seen a steady rise in the thefts over the past few years.
“When you can steal one [catalytic] converter and make well over $100, and you hit a place that has four, five or six and you make a grand a night, that’s pretty good money,” said Sgt. Billy Smith of the Auto Theft Unit.
Thieves tend to concentrate on auto dealerships or companies with a fleet of trucks in a parking lot. Taller vehicles — trucks, vans, SUVs — make easy targets for someone with a battery-operated saw to slide under and boost a catalytic converter loose with a couple quick cuts. It takes a minute, maybe two.
Smith said he’s seeing catalytic converter thieves target broken-down vehicles left in parking lots or on the sides of interstates as well. Towing thefts are also easy marks for thieves. And police continue to deal with thefts from cars littered with valuables in plain sight as well as those just left running and unattended by owners.
Auto thefts increase
In general, vehicle thefts are up in Metro during the first part of 2011.
Following a drop from nearly 2,700 vehicles reported stolen in 2008 to 1,759 in 2009 and 1,767 in 2010, according to data from the Auto Theft Unit, those numbers have edged up. Compared with a reported 527 stolen vehicles between Oct. 1, 2009, and Jan. 31, 2010, the number has slid up to 668 over the same time span from last October through last month.
East Precinct Cmdr. Robert Nash said that according to a Compstat report, auto thefts countywide have increased year-to-date — this January compared with last — by 17 percent, from 134 to 157.
Towing thefts often make for easier cases for the auto unit because of good relationships with scrap metal shops in and around Metro. Several of the shops keep lists of who is selling what vehicles to them — even to the point of taking photos of sellers and their vehicles — so detectives armed with stolen vehicle reports can check around the shops to see if any have turned up. It’s little solace for the victims, though: Their stolen property is often found after metal shops have crushed the vehicles into expensive oversized paperweights.
“What’s really bad is, how many people you know with a 10-year or older car have full [insurance] coverage? Hardly any of them,” Smith said. Under state law, vehicles 10 years or older can be sold, for instance to metal shops, without a title, making them perfect targets for thieves who can tow a vehicle away before the owner even begins to realize what is happening.
But a prime frustration for Metro detectives, and especially for Nash, has been the apparent insistence of some vehicle owners to leave their doors unlocked or keep valuables within them in plain sight.
“Our big problem has been people leaving their GPS devices, computers, purses and everything else just out in plain view,” Nash said.
Last month, in an East Precinct weekend “Park Smart” initiative in the areas around East Nashville, officers reported finding items such as iPods, a guitar, a flute, a laptop, a new television still in the box, and a doctor’s lab coat and identification badge — all left in plain view inside vehicles. Police have reported that in some areas, residents even opt to leave doors unlocked to avoid repair costs of broken windows or popped locks.
Still, each year, cold winter weather creates a new set of auto-theft issues. Smith has seen an increase in joyriding over the past couple months. Perhaps just looking to get off the cold streets for a bit or keep from having to hoof it in a blistering wind, some thieves, often juveniles, appear to steal vehicles simply for transportation. When they turn up later, Smith said the vehicles aren’t stripped of parts or driven hard but are simply sitting a few miles from where owners left them.
In Metro’s South Precinct, Sgt. Suzanne Stephens said the area has experienced a small spike in auto thefts, something she said happens this time of year in part because people warm up their cars — unattended — in cold weather.
“I get the whole thing about how nice is it to go out to a nice, warm car, but on the other hand, how inconvenient is it to go out and there is no nice car, warm or not,” Stephens said.