A catalytic converter is seen at Industrial Metal Recycling in Oakland, Maine. Thieves looking to make easy money have been crawling under vehicles across Northeast Mississippi with saws and stealing catalytic converters, law enforcement officials say. Since early April, there have been more than a dozen reported converter thefts in Tupelo and Lee County.

TUPELO • Criminals looking to make easy money have been crawling under vehicles across Northeast Mississippi with saws and stealing catalytic converters.

The thieves are attempting to cash in on the precious metals – platinum and rhodium – contained within the catalytic converters, which help reduce harmful emissions from a car’s exhaust.

For just a few minutes of “work,” someone can earn several hundred dollars.

“Someone with a cordless sawzall (reciprocating saw) can cut through an exhaust system and have a converter out in about five minutes,” said Roger Hussey, owner of Muffler Master in Tupelo. “And a junk (used) converter can go for $100 to $200 apiece.”

As a businessman, Hussey has to comply with Environmental Protection Agency laws. These including both holding any converter he removes for at least 15 days, but also filing paper detailing why the part was removed.

For people who aren’t as honest, there is always someone willing to purchase a converter, no questions asked, in order to recover the precious metals inside.

“I have folks come by here several times a week wanting to buy old converters,” Hussey said.

Since the weather warmed up in April, there has been a steady stream of people who have returned to their vehicles to find a key component of their exhaust system missing. There have been more than a dozen thefts reported in Tupelo and Lee County since early April.

The Corinth and Oxford police departments have seen a marked increase in these types of thefts. Prentiss County Sheriff Randy Tolar said he’s seen only a few thefts in the county, but there have been numerous reported in Baldwyn and Booneville.

Tupelo Police Department spokesman Capt. Chuck McDougald and Detective Brittney Williams said most of the recent reports have been at businesses or in commercial areas under the cover of night.

“We are dealing with more than one person, it’s not just here in Tupelo,” Williams said. “But I don’t know if this is an organized effort. It is probably more word-of-mouth.”

McDougald agreed, noting that criminals talk to each other. If one has a good idea, or an easy way to make money, they will tell others.

“They are likely selling them to middlemen, who then take them up north to other states where they might pay more,” Williams said.

While numerous thefts have been reported, officials believe there are many more that haven’t. Some people will take their lumps and just replace the converter without alerting the police, law enforcement officials said.

“We are always looking for people to come forward and report these crimes so we can build a database and determine where we need to patrol more,” McDougald said. “Even if they don’t know who did it, one of their neighbors might have a security camera that caught an image we can use.”

In fact, it was a neighbor’s camera that led TPD to arrest Forrest Sowell, 48, of Belden, earlier this week for stealing a converter. He was charged with felony malicious mischief and is being held in the Lee County Jail on a $5,000 bond.

In many cases, the damage done to the vehicle in the removal process outweighs the scrap value of the catalytic converter. And most of the time, in their haste, the criminal doesn’t always make their cuts in a place where it will be easy to repair.

Hussey said someone cut one of three converters off a Chevrolet van outside a McCullough Boulevard business recently. When Hussey could not find a replacement for the left converter, he had to replace the entire section. The price tag for the repair: $2,000.

Williams said the criminals have been hitting various vehicles, and they don’t seem to be targeting any particular category.

But Hussey has noticed one trend.

“The thieves are only going after the original equipment converters,” Hussey said. “The aftermarket ones don’t bring jack on the junk market.”

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