LONDON (Reuters) - Thefts of auto catalytic converters have risen recently in parts of Britain, encouraged by higher prices for precious metals used in the component which cuts harmful exhaust fumes.
"In the last few weeks we have heard of the (catalytic converter) thefts starting again," said Vanessa Guyll, a technical specialist for AA Public Affairs.
The AA is a British company that provides various services to drivers, including vehicle breakdown cover.
The previous spate of thefts in early 2008 tailed off later that year as the global economic recession saw prices for platinum, palladium and rhodium, used in catalytic converters, tumble.
Despite recent falls, prices for these metals have been on a general upwards path since late 2008.
In late April, palladium prices reached $570.50 an ounce, their highest in more than two years.
Johnson Matthey, a speciality chemicals company, which makes autocatalysts, said in an annual report platinum prices could reach $2,000 an ounce in the next six months, their highest since mid-2008.
High prices have revived criminal interest.
Car breakdown company, RAC -- owned by Britain's second largest insurer Aviva -- said it had seen an increase in converter thefts in the last couple of months.
"These incidents make up a tiny amount of our callouts but the increase is significant compared to the same time in 2009," said Lucy Haughey, Media Relations Manager at RAC.
Automotive parts replacement specialists, Kwik Fit, declined to comment on the subject.
But several thefts have been reported in parts of south England -- in Hampshire and Surrey -- as well as in the north west.
Thieves target large vehicles such as vans and 4X4s because of the greater ground clearance and size of the converters.
"It's a relatively easy way of making money...Removing them (converters) doesn't require much skill as long as you're fit enough to roll under the car," the AA's Guyll said.
Thieves tend to use small battery-powered saws to cut through the exhaust pipe either side of where the converter is fitted.
"The owner realises as soon as he starts the vehicle and hears the terrible noise from the exhaust," AA's Guyll added.
Criminals may get as much as 125 pounds when selling the stolen part. For a large car it costs around 1,000 pounds plus labour to replace a catalytic converter.
To help combat the crime, the AA suggests several measures, including putting a unique mark on the metal shell of the component to make it easier to trace back to the vehicle.
Metals theft, not just of precious metals, is rife in times of high prices, and covers a vast array of items, including copper wire, road signs and lead roof sheets.
The British Metals Recycling Association (BMRA), whose members are often the victims of such crimes, runs a stolen metals alert system on its website: www.recyclemetals.org/
BMRA represents the 5 billion pound UK metal recycling industry. Its 300 members include large and small businesses in the ferrous and non-ferrous sectors including shredder operators, merchants and traders.
"We are reassured that police forces around the country have been taking action to tackle this localised problem," said Ian Hetherington, director general of the BMRA.
"Experience shows that robust policing and attention to security procedures are important deterrents to thieves."
(Reporting by Karen Norton and Pratima Desai; Edited by Amanda Cooper)