ATLANTA — Roy Johnson watched on surveillance footage as hooded men drove onto his church’s property in Dalton one night and dashed off with the catalytic converters from three Providence Ministries vans.
They made quick work of removing the clunky parts, which have become a popular target for metal thieves nationwide. The theft, which occurred last month, remains unsolved.
“If they’re under there and they have the right equipment, it doesn’t take them long to saw them off and go,” said Johnson, who is the president of the church and homeless shelter.
While it may be tough to prevent someone from stealing a catalytic converter, lawmakers want to at least make it harder for crooks to profit. Rep. Jason Shaw, R-Lakeland, is proposing new limits on who can legally sell a catalytic converter in Georgia.
The part plays an essential role in an exhaust system, reducing the pollutants coming from a vehicle. Equipped with an electric saw, someone can slide under a vehicle and remove the catalytic converter in a few minutes.
By the time the owner discovers the theft, which can cause $1,400 to $2,000 in damage, the part has likely been sold, says Kendall Brown, an investigator with the Richmond County Sheriffs Office in Augusta.
Shaw's bill, which has passed the House, expands on a three-year-old law that passed at the height of the copper theft wave and requires recyclers to document transactions.
Shaw, who authored the previous bill, said he was warned in 2012 that he was taking on an unending fight. Catalytic converters have replaced copper as the metal du jour for criminals. Georgia ranked fifth in metal theft-related claims on the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s most recent listing, which came out last year.
“My philosophy is what they’re doing right now is what we’re going to try to stop,” he said.
Under Shaw's proposal, someone who sells a catalytic converter must represent a licensed business, such as a licensed repair shop. A car owner who installs a new catalytic converter can sell the old part, as long as there is documentation.
The market for recycled catalytic converters is already small. Only a handful of secondary metal recyclers are willing to pay top dollar for the part, which can sell for $200.
The complexity of dealing in catalytic converters also limits the number of buyers willing to make such a gamble. Differentiating between parts with resale value — typically plucked from foreign-made cars — and those with low value is a complex affair.
And while catalytic converters contain precious elements — platinum in particular — that isn’t what is driving demand, Brown said.
“There’s a market for them because there’s a demand for them in states that require annual emission tests,” said Brown, a full-time metal theft investigator who trains law enforcement throughout the state. “It’s a very lucrative business.”
Common in the Northeast, the emission test is only required in the Atlanta metro area in Georgia.
Brown said the 2012 law, with its record-keeping requirements, has helped him make 321 arrests for catalytic converter thefts in Richmond County.
He often starts his day waiting at the recyclers. He equated it to “hanging out at the finish line.”
Brown said air conditioner thefts, spurred by the resale value of copper, have all but stopped in his county. Stiffer regulations on catalytic converters would have a similar effect, he said.
Frank Goulding, vice president of marketing at Atlanta area-based Newell Recycling, agrees that making sales harder will deter thieves.
“If someone steals something and there’s no market for it, he’s not going to do it again because he can’t sell it,” Goulding said.
Johnson, however, has his doubts.
“There’s always going to be a market,” he said.
Jill Nolin covers the Statehouse for CNHI's Georgia newspapers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.