Those looking to make a quick buck, or a couple of hundred, have discovered a treasure trove underneath vehicles -- the catalytic converter, which is stolen and sold to scrap yards or to recyclers.
The trend appears to have hit Aiken County.
From February to March, the Aiken County Sheriff's Office "had six reported cases of catalytic converters being stolen from automobiles for a total of 13 autos," Lt. Michael Frank said.
Catalytic converters change harmful pollutants into less harmful emissions before they leave the car's exhaust system.
But why would anyone take the trouble to remove this part?
Each converter contains the precious metals platinum and rhodium, which currently are more valuable than gold.
As of Monday, platinum was worth $2,026 an ounce, and rhodium was worth $8,925 an ounce. Gold was $920.60 an ounce.
Lt. Frank said a person can sell a catalytic converter at scrap yard for about $200 to $300.
Mickey Morris, the owner of Morris Tire and Auto in Aiken, said an after-market converter can cost about $250 to $300. But that price can go to as much as $1,000 if the vehicle requires a factory-fit part, he said.
Mr. Morris has recently replaced about six converters that were stolen from area vehicles.
"They'll drive up to a parking lot and steal it off while you're shopping," he said. "They'll use a battery-operated saw, and they can have it off in less than five minutes."
Unless the person is caught in the act, there is no way to trace what vehicle the converter came from.
People stealing catalytic converters usually target car lots or service garages.
Richmond County sheriff's Lt. Tony Walden said several catalytic converters were stolen from vehicles parked in an Augusta car lot during the weekend.
"We usually don't see a lot of single catalytic converters taken," he said. "Usually if they are taken, they are taken five or six at a time."
In Columbia County, sheriff's Maj. Rick Whitaker said catalytic converter thefts have not been a problem.
"We have patrols out checking car dealerships and apartments," he said.
Reach Michelle Guffey at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHAT IS IT?
The inside the catalytic converter is a honeycomb set of passageways or small ceramic beads coated with catalysts such as platinum, rhodium and/or palladium. The catalysts induce a chemical reaction that converts pollutants such as nitrogen and carbon dioxide into less harmful emissions.