Precious metals

Our view: Halting the epidemic of catalytic converter thefts requires help from Annapolis

November 23, 2008

Armed with a cordless reciprocating saw, a thief needs only about 90 seconds to steal a car's catalytic converter, the anti-pollution device that can be accessed from underneath and cut away from the exhaust system. The criminal's reward is $50 to $200 that a local scrap dealer will pay for the various precious metals, including platinum, that are found inside.

In 2006, Baltimore County police investigated 50 such incidents. So far this year, that number has swelled to 320, a sixfold increase.

Theft of scrap metal has become a problem of epidemic proportions for Baltimore County. It's so bad that someone had the temerity to rip off the aluminum bleachers from Kenwood High School last January. And the problem is growing in other communities across the country as well.

The increasing cost of some of the metals involved has likely played a part in the trend even as other forms of property crime are on the way down in Baltimore County. Over the first half of the year, reports of robbery fell 8.5 percent, burglary 5.8 percent and motor vehicle theft more than 15 percent.

What seems to be happening is that criminals have caught on that the theft of catalytic converters is a lucrative and relatively easy enterprise. And it's one that's difficult to police.

Why? Because unlike in Baltimore, where scrap dealers are required to check the identity of sellers and report converter purchases to police, their counterparts in Baltimore County and much of the rest of the state don't live under such restrictions.

Baltimore County Police Chief Jim Johnson is asking for that to change, and he's absolutely right. Baltimore County doesn't have the authority to regulate scrap dealers in this way, but the Maryland General Assembly does.

Earlier this year lawmakers in Annapolis approved such a measure, but it got bogged down in the final wrap-up of the 90-day session. That's can't be allowed to happen again when legislators reconvene in January. While county police are taking steps to reduce such thefts, requiring dealers to report transactions would make their job far easier.

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