Scrap metal thefts increase as police and businesses struggle to stem wave
Joseph Tobianski | AnnArbor.com
And in troubling news for local residents, businesses and anyone else with loose metal hanging around, it’s nearly impossible to defend against.
There has been a rash of thefts reported this summer where seemingly random metal objects are taken from vehicles, local stores and, in the case of manhole covers that were stolen earlier this year, even right out of the ground.
Mike Radzik, director of police services in Ypsilanti Township, said police have little choice but to rely on residents to call in scrap-metal thefts as they happen to have any chance to stop them. And as people continue to struggle in a tough economy, he said, these types of crimes will look even more attractive to people who are willing to do whatever it takes to get money.
“I have to believe the economy is driving most of it,” Radzik said. “The reality is there are a lot of people out of work that have to eat and pay their bills Compared to five or 10 years ago, the only thing that’s changed is the economy.”
For many people, protecting their cars, aluminum siding or any other metal pieces from being stolen for scrap metal isn’t weighing heavily on their minds. However, that can change once an attempt is made on their property.
Fingerle said he never considered that the racking might be targeted for theft until he received notice from an employee that an Ann Arbor Police Department officer had stopped the act in progress.
“He just pulled his truck up and loaded it up and the AAPD caught him in the process of doing that,” Fingerle said. “Since then, we’ve taken steel banding and strapped the material together. It provides a little more security.”
Since the spring, there have been many reports in the Ann Arbor area of thefts similar to the one attempted on Fingerle’s business. It might seem absurd to steal copper wiring or piping, large pieces of steel or a 200-pound manhole cover but authorities say that the crimes are becoming more popular.
One of the most popular items targeted for their value as scrap metal are catalytic converters — a part on motor vehicles that turns the toxic fumes created by internal combustion engines into non-toxic gases that are released from the vehicle.
Detective Sgt. George Warchock, of the Washtenaw Area Auto Theft Team, said there’s usually at least one report of a catalytic converter stolen off a car each week.
“There’s no way to identify it to confirm it came off the car,” Warchock said. “Police have to catch the bad guy with the converter and match it up to the exact cut. Short of that, there’s no numbers on them.
"Once they’re removed from the car and they got away with that portion, there’s no way to confirm it.”
The money involved isn't great: Officials speculate that a 200-pound manhole cover might be worth about $18, a catalytic converter from a car might be worth between $70 and $80 and a pound of steel might be worth just 7 or 8 cents. But the ease of the crime balances that, Warchock said.
People who have the catalytic converter stolen from their car won’t be looking at an easy thing to replace, either.
Terri Miller, director of Help Eliminate Auto Theft in Michigan, said repairing a vehicle that's had its catalytic converter stolen can cost thousands of dollars. She said usually the thief would simply hack out most of a vehicle’s underbelly in order to get the piece off, which contains valuable metals like platinum, rhodium and palladium.
Some local scrap metal recyclers are already on the lookout for these hard-to-trace components.
Tom Schoolcraft, owner of Select Metals Recycling, called the rash of thefts of scrap metal “a terrible situation” and said he and his employees are very wary of anyone who comes in with a catalytic converter.
Schoolcraft said his main sources of catalytic converters are muffler shops and customers that he’s gotten to know well. But when someone comes in with a large number of catalytic converters, or is someone that isn’t familiar, he usually refuses to buy their materials.
“We always ask them, where’d you get it, what are you doing with it,” he said. “We don’t pull any punches here. My lead guy says that if it’s stolen, this is the last place you want to bring it. We try to stand firm and make sure there’s justice.”
Relationships between the police and scrap metal dealers have been growing in recent years, mostly thanks to the Nonferrous Metal Regulatory Act of 2009 .
Schoolcraft pointed to ScrapTheftAlert.com, a website that allows police to notify all scrap metal dealers within 100 miles of an incident to be on the look out for certain items that have been stolen. He said he will often look at the site and the descriptions of suspects in order to be aware of stolen items that could come into his shop.
Schoolcraft said scrap metal dealers were always looked at as “bad guys” before the laws were enacted because they were seen as one of the reasons that people were stealing metal. He described the attitude as, “You’re buying it, that’s why they’re stealing it.”
The new law, which requires scrap metal dealers to keep records of each sale for at least one year, participate in a theft-tracking database and pay sellers by a traceable method, has allowed dealers to become a part of the solution.
“Our main goal is to have a legitimate business and any way we can deter the thieves out there, we’re all for it,” Schoolcraft said.
Some of the other popular items that have been stolen recently are copper wiring and piping from houses, aluminum siding and equipment from local parks.
Radzik said stealing metal for scrap has been prevalent during the last year to 18 months, but seems to have gotten worse recently. He said the township has been losing manhole covers off public roads, playground equipment, picnic tables and benches from parks — even things that are bolted down.
He pointed toward the Liberty Square condominium complex as a prime area where thieves have gone to steal scrap metal. Radzick said township officials have had to board up 15 or 20 units in that complex in the past week because doors have been kicked in so pieces of the homes can be looted for scrap metal.
In addition, the former developer has admitted in court he ripped aluminum siding off the sides of some of the buildings to sell for scrap.
Radzik said it’s important for anyone victimized by this kind of crime to report the incident to police. Even if it’s not a large amount of stolen property or of high monetary value, it still may lead to information that will allow criminals to be apprehended.
“It’s important to report these losses to the police and as the police process the reports, they can identify the trends and patterns where they’re occurring,” he said.
Miller agreed, and encouraged the community to keep a sharp eye on their cars and property, as well as their neighbors.
“If you see suspicious vehicles, write down the license plate number, especially a van because they can conceal the catalytic converters,” she said. “They’re not going to take just one, they’re going to take five, six or 10 while they’re at it.”
Anyone who has information on catalytic converter thefts can call Michigan HEAT at 1-800-242-HEAT. Information leading to the arrest of a converter thief can bring a reward up to $10,000.