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Employees at the Salt Lake City offices of a Utah nonprofit were surprised earlier this month to find two of their vehicles had been hit by thieves. The criminals didn't break in to steal cash or a stereo system: They were after the vehicles' catalytic converters — a part that helps to filter out toxic emissions from vehicles. The thieves were likely after the tiny amount of platinum inside, a very rare metal worth about $1,600 per ounce.

"I was just kind of baffled," said Janine Donald, the director of Splore, which organizes outdoor trips for people with disabilities. With two vehicles in its fleet suddenly out of commission, Splore had to cancel a couple of scheduled trips the week of the Jan. 14 thefts. And the estimated $3,400 in replacement costs put an unexpected financial burden on the small nonprofit, Donald said.

Donald said she never thought about catalytic converters until they were suddenly gone. Most people don't. And in the middle of winter, most people probably aren't thinking about air conditioners or sprinkler systems, either. But all of these items contain tiny amounts of valuable metals such as platinum and copper that many criminals steal and then sell for quick cash. Current commodity prices put copper at about $3.75 per pound.

Unfortunately, the damage they cause far exceeds the worth of the haul.

"They're causing $10,000 worth of damage and getting $200 for what they stole," said Salt Lake City police Detective Robert Ungricht.

Metal theft has become a widespread petty crime that is catching the attention of state lawmakers this session. It can cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars every year, and police, state officials and metal recyclers all seem to agree the problem has no easy solution.

A crime of opportunity • Metal theft isn't new, but its popularity among criminals has soared along with rising commodity prices, according to Ungricht.

"It's definitely a money generator for them," the Salt Lake detective said of metal thieves, who are often trying to get their hands on enough money to feed a drug addiction. Of the offenders Ungricht has dealt with, most admit they're trying to score money for drugs.

"It's a crime of opportunity, just like any crime," he said.

It also poses much less risk than other illegal means of getting money. Thieves who are caught are usually charged with petty larceny and spend a few days in jail at the most, Ungricht said.

But such thefts add up, and since government agencies are among the most popular targets, those losses can be passed on to taxpayers, Ungricht said.

John Gleason, spokesman for the Utah Department of Transportation, said the department's many street and freeway lights, freeway signs and cameras are popular targets.

Data from UDOT suggest that metal theft costs hundreds of thousands of dollars every year and has been on the rise in recent years. In fiscal 2010, UDOT reported a loss of $350,000. That amount rose to $410,000 in fiscal year 2012, and so far this year, $190,000 worth of metal has been stolen.

Gleason said UDOT has responded recently by replacing copper wire with less valuable aluminum, but the replacements are usually done on an as-needed basis.

Criminals will often try to blend in by wearing hard hats or construction vests while stripping copper wires from UDOT property. The class of thieves runs the gamut as well.

"You have varying degrees of expertise here," Gleason said. Some people are amateurs, but others seem to know exactly what they're looking for.

"Maybe in another life they were an electrician," he said of some of the more skilled thieves.

Solutions or unfair rules? • The problem, according to Ungricht, is that thieves have a ready market for their stolen goods. Ungricht said police suspect that some metal recyclers in the Salt Lake area are making money themselves by looking the other way when thieves bring in stolen goods. State law requires metal recyclers to get customer identification, license plate numbers and photos. But unlike pawn shops, metal companies aren't required to retain and report their records, although authorities can inspect those records at any time.

Ungricht said metal recyclers should follow the same rules as pawn shops, which he believes would better ferret out less reputable businesses. While many companies do call if they suspect they've taken in stolen material, unscrupulous metal recyclers "are becoming some of our biggest problems," he said.

Two Utah lawmakers hope to add more rules for metal recyclers this year.

Rep. Dixon Pitcher, R-Ogden, is drafting legislation that would require a thumb print from people who sell scrap, which is now required of pawn shops. Pitcher said the proposal was inspired by scores of calls he gets from constituents whose property has been damaged by metal thieves. In his district, homeowners, businesses, schools and churches have all been hit, Pitcher said. He and fellow Rep. Jack Draxler, R-Logan, will likely combine two similar proposals into one bill, he said.

"These [bills] are very driven by constituents who are very financially hurt," Pitcher said.

Chris Lewon, vice president of Utah Metal Works, said honest companies like his would be hurt by tougher regulations, which he maintains won't deter thieves. "It's the backwards way of looking at it," he said. "You're taking the problem to a more clandestine place."

Instead, he said, communication between metal recyclers and authorities should be improved. Lewon said his company tries to help police as much as possible. Everyone who sells metal at the shop has to show identification and is recorded on video, but the company also takes note of license plate numbers. Employees are told to set aside and report any material that seems suspicious via an unofficial e-mail tree shared between various recyclers, police investigators and prosecutors.

If someone reports a theft right away and police act on that report quickly enough, the company's efforts can sometimes help in tracking down a thief, he said. But, he added, "we are not trained as police officers."

A little bit of individual responsibility goes a long way, Lewon said. People should assume that a piece of metal is as valuable to a thief as an unattended stereo or unlocked car. In fact, scrap metal businesses are just as often victims of theft themselves, Lewon said.

"Thieves want the easiest target they can get," he said. When someone doesn't realize that a piece of equipment might be ripe for scrap thieves, "it's like waving dollar bills out there."

Twitter: @KimballBennion

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