With the price of many precious metals on the rise in recent years, thieves have begun targeting some inconspicuous items.
One of those items is air conditioning units, which contain copper and aluminum — meaning a big payoff for a thief.
Thieves are stealing the units entirely or unscrewing the top and gutting the costly metals from within.
“The outside units have those copper coils inside it and that’s been pretty common for some time now,” Hall County Sheriff’s Sgt. Stephen Wilbanks said.
With so many foreclosures in the last few years, thieves are finding easy targets in vacant homes or businesses.
“The thieves are going in stealing air conditioning units that are primarily at these vacant residences, and in some cases with no eyes on them all the time,” Wilbanks said.
The Gainesville Police Department has also dealt with the problem of increasing AC unit thefts, public information officer Kevin Holbrook said.
“There have been some issues related to that,” he said. “Of course, with housing market there are more vacant homes and it makes it easily accessible.”
Although the price of copper has fallen by about 50 cents in the past year, it still brings in about $3.21 a pound.
Thus far in 2011, the Hall County Sheriff’s Office has worked 131 cases resulting in 154 stolen air conditioning units.
The reason for the higher number of units stolen than cases is because thieves often target businesses with multiple units.
“Larger strip malls have been affected possibly because there are more targets in a single area,” Holbrook said.
The numbers for this year are considerably higher than they were for all of 2010. The Sheriff’s Office totaled 62 cases and 81 units stolen.
“The air conditioning thefts have picked up over the course of the past year or so,” Wilbanks said.
“We had some prior to that, but as word has gotten out amongst the criminal element the air conditioning thefts have picked up because there’s more knowledge that there is copper inside those units that’s readily available inside these homes that are vacant,” he added.
And residents can be at danger if thieves don’t properly disassemble the unit. Some AC units are connected to natural gas lines and can leak if tampered with.
“I believe we have had a few instances in the past where the subjects have damaged the unit and cut the line and natural gas filled the house,” Holbrook said.
Gainesville Fire Marshal Chad Payne said the fire department has responded to calls involving natural gas leaks that turned out to be from a stolen air conditioning unit.
“It depends on how blatant they are in stealing it,” he said. “Occasionally when they’re in a hurry and they’re just ripping stuff out, they’ll knock out the gas line.”
Payne, though, said it’s a fairly infrequent issue because most units aren’t connected to gas lines.
“Usually gas lines aren’t a part of it. It usually comes in the house from somewhere near it,” he said.
Another item being targeted for theft recently is catalytic converters, an item not noticed missing until an owner cranks the vehicle’s engine.
While Hall County hasn’t seen a tremendous increase of catalytic converter thefts recently, they do still work the occasional case.
“Here recently they’ve dropped off as the air conditioning thefts have picked up,” Wilbanks said.
The lure of catalytic converters is for the three metals often contained inside: platinum, rhodium and palladium.
Mark Bennett, owner of United Auto Care in Gainesville, said his business has been the victim of multiple thefts involving stolen catalytic converters.
Not all catalytic converters are the same, either. Some vehicles contain higher quantities of the metals than others.
“Most of the thieves that are skilled in their profession; they know what vehicles have the higher content of the metal in them,” Bennett said. “They will actually target certain vehicles over other vehicles.”
Two years ago, Bennett, as well as two other businesses, fell victim to a string of catalytic converter thefts in a single night.
More recently Bennett’s business was the victim of three catalytic converter thefts. The converters were being stored in 55-gallon drums.
“It’s gotten so bad with the theft of catalytic converters ... that we have had to start storing our scrap catalytic converters inside an enclosed area because we’ve had them stolen actually outside in the scrap bins,” Bennett said.
With the use of a portable power saw and the assistance of a partner, thieves can escape with a huge payout within minutes.
Bennett said Asian imports are often targeted because their catalytic converters often are designed close to the exhaust manifold and are worth more.
“Not only are the scrap metal vendors aware of this, but obviously the thieves are very much aware of this,” he said.
Authorities often work hand-in-hand with local metal recyclers to track thieves down,
“Recyclers generally require persons selling scrap metal to provide ID and keep it on file, but identifying scrap that is stolen versus legitimately collected is sometimes a difficult task,” Wilbanks said.
With thefts of various metal on the rise, Bennett said the government needs to find a way to regulate the metal recyclers.
“We need better governing regulation so that the reclamation yards have some type of means of being able to ensure what they’re getting has not been pilfered or stolen,” he said.