COVINGTON - The latest petty crime wave to hit the area is the theft of catalytic converters, something that is accessible from underneath any parked vehicle. Both the Newton County Sheriff's Office and the Covington Police Department are reporting multiple thefts of the devices.
"It's sad to say, but, basically, any vehicle left unattended is at risk. It's not like something on the inside that can be placed out of sight, said NCSO Investigator Sharron Stewart, who said her department had recently seen a rash of incidents involving the devices.
Detective Daniel Seals of the Covington Police Department said he had heard from metro Atlanta agencies several months ago that converter thefts were on the rise.
"We began getting e-mails about people getting under cars and taking them. Something like that usually spreads into the outlying areas and we're usually one of the last ones to get it, but when we do, it's our problem, too," he said.
Seals said it is the platinum contained in the converters that is coveted, but the return for the ordinary thief who sells the whole converter is miniscule - a metal recycling business will pay anywhere from $10 to $25 for each converter.
"The real money is made by the people who sell it to the place who removes the platinum," Seals said.
And for that process to even be profitable, there has to be a large amount of converters available, not just the two or three the average thief is able to acquire.
"There's not a lot of platinum in a converter, and it has to go through a chemical process to break it down," Seals said, comparing it to "crush mining" for gold. "It's not easy to get the platinum out."
Apart from the nagging concern of going to jail, there are other reasons that stealing converters is not a particularly profitable enterprise for a local thief.
Seals pointed out that even the small quantity of platinum that is in the converter is considered hazardous material.
"There's only a couple of places in the U.S. that can deal with it. There are a lot of regulations on them, even down to how many converters can be on site at one time," he said.
And then there's the puzzling question of why someone who is so lazy they'd rather steal than work would go to all the effort to get under a vehicle with a battery-powered hacksaw like a Sawzall to cut off a catalytic converter and only make a few dollars?
"There's just very little money for their work," Seals said, adding that on the other side of the equation, the damage done to vehicles when the converters are cut off can cost hundreds of dollars to repair.
Officials with the NCSO and the CPD are working individually and together in investigating each of the incidents reported and expect to make arrests.
Also, thefts of GPS units are on the rise and the best advice officials have to prevent that is to keep the unit out of sight when a vehicle is unattended.
"It's kind of like window shopping," Seals said. "A thief may not go to the trouble to look for one, although he may. But chances are if they can see one in plain view in the car next to you, they're going for that one," he said.