Thieves target old cars for scrap metal and quick cash



It might look like junk to some, but it looks like cash to a thief.

Authorities say rising scrap metal prices are driving thefts of cars that get taken directly to area junk and scrap yards.

Thieves are targeting older vehicles that can be turned into quick cash.

A car can be stolen, sold to a scrap yard and destroyed, often before the owner even knows it is missing, said Richmond County sheriff’s Investigator Kendall Brown, the coordinator of the CSRA Metal Theft Task Force.

“They are fueled by the money and blinded to the fact that they will get arrested,” he said.

Scrap metal prices have been rising steadily since 2008, when they peaked and fell after the market “bubble” burst, said Bryan Berry, a veteran metals-industry reporter and researcher based in Chicago.

“Price of obsolete scrap metal is above $400 per gross ton in Chicago and other cities across the U.S.,” Berry said. “It’s the second-highest scrap price in history.”

Brown said locally a scrap vehicle can bring between $15 and $18 per 100 pounds, about three times what you could expect to get a few years ago.

Last week, Brown arrested two men in connection with a stolen 1991 Chevrolet van and a 1989 Chevrolet Celebrity recovered in the parking lot at CMC Recycling Center on Old Savannah Road. Renard Woodard, 36, and Tavaris Hart, 22, were arrested and charged with theft by receiving and possession of a motor vehicle with an altered vehicle identification number.

Although the vehicles were drivable, neither looked like something anyone would want.

All the van’s windows had been broken out, the windshield was missing and black spray paint covered a large portion of the front end. Most of the interior had been destroyed.

The damage, however, was all a disguise, Brown said. The van had been stolen from someone’s driveway just a few days before Brown found it at CMC.

He said thieves often steal old cars and trash them before trying to sell them as junk.

“They break out all the windows, headlight and tail lights, knock holes in the body, anything to make it look like junk,” Brown said. “That van would have been worth about $700, if he had been able to sell it.”

Police suspect the two men are connected to Willard Trottie, a convicted car thief arrested this month in connection with almost a dozen thefts.

They are among several recently arrested and charged with stealing old cars and selling them as junk or scrap.

Four others were also arrested this past week. David Malpass Jr., of Gloverville; Crystal Grey, of Graniteville; and Richard Wilkey and Michael Eller, of Jackson, were charged in connection with the thefts of 10 automobiles.

Brown said the group targeted older vehicles in South Carolina and towed them across the state line to sell them to recycling centers in Georgia.

In addition to the price of scrap metal, sheriff’s Investigator Billy Dixon said thieves are attracted to old cars because they are easy to steal and easy to sell.

Of the more than 1,000 vehicles stolen in 2011, according to Richmond County sheriff’s data, more than half were built in the 1990s and 1980s.

Almost 70 percent of all cars stolen were at least 12 years old.

That’s because cars older than 12 years don’t require a title if they are being sold as junk, Dixon said. All a seller has to do is sign an affidavit stating that he owns the car free and clear and he can walk away with cash.

Even though some information identifying the seller is taken by metal recyclers and junk yards, the incentive of quick cash often outweighs the risk of getting caught, Brown said.

A new state law, scheduled to take effect July 1, is designed to create more deterrents for thieves who target old cars.

Frank Goulding, the vice president of marketing for Newell Recycling, said the law will require more information from people who sell metal for scrap, including anyone who wants to scrap a car.

In addition to an affidavit, sellers will have to submit identification and be photographed whenever they make a sale. Also, an automobile’s vehicle identification number will be recorded and sent to the Georgia Department of Revenue to become part of a vehicle database.

Sellers also won’t get cash, Goulding said. They will have to accept a check for payment, which will be yet another way to track people who break the law, he said.

“It’s going to be a very useful tool for law enforcement,” he said.

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