Most folks use air conditioners to beat the sizzling summer heat.
But some thieves use them as a means to cold, hard cash.
A new state law is designed to stop them in their tracks.
Beginning Wednesday, anyone who buys or sells copper -- abundant in the inner workings of air conditioners -- or other high-value scrap metals such as aluminum must get a permit from the local sheriff's office. The law, passed last legislative session, is designed to thwart metal thieves, who do things like gut air conditioners and sell the metal to recyclers or salvage yards.
"The law is a great step in the right direction in trying to reduce copper thefts," Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said. "If it works like it's intended to, the salvage companies will turn those who don't have a permit away."
The Sheriff's Office has recorded 45 thefts of non-ferrous metals since January 2009. That count doesn't include thefts of items such as catalytic converters and air-conditioning units, which are most often targeted for the metals inside, according to Sgt. Robin McIntosh, a Sheriff's Office spokeswoman.
Other hot spots for copper thieves are church air-conditioning units since the buildings are often unoccupied for most of the week, Tanner said.
Construction sites are often targeted, too.
In April, for example, Lowcountry Habitat for Humanity had nearly completed three new houses on St. Helena Island when thieves struck the homes' $2,000 air-conditioning units just a day after they were installed, according to sheriff reports.
As the economy has worsened and the value of metals has risen, such thefts have become a problem across the state. Thieves had an easy time of it since there was no recording requirement. But starting Wednesday, recycling and scrap-metal companies must check the permit before buying. It also is illegal for sellers to transport the metals without a permit.
Tracking the metals was difficult. Thieves normally took only the salable metal inside, leaving behind the air-conditioning unit's serial numbers and other identifying markers.
The new permitting system allows buyers and the Sheriff's Office to keep a database of metal transactions.
"Every county in the state has been bombarded with copper thefts. We had to do something," Tanner said. "We don't expect thieves to go and get a permit. But an honest citizen who does this for a living will get one."
WHAT THE LAW REQUIRES
To buy high-value metals, recyclers must first make a copy of a seller's permit.
They must record the details of each sale, including copying the seller's driver's license and vehicle tag number, the amount paid, and a description of what's being sold.
Recycling companies must apply for the $200 two-year permits at their county sheriff's department.
Sellers who are full-time scrap metal collectors must apply in person for a one-year permit.
Anyone can apply for a 48-hour permit, but can only have two within a 12-month period.
Recycling companies also can no longer pay cash for copper, beer kegs, catalytic converters and radiators. Payment must be made by check, which provides further record of the sale.
Damaris Von Der Mark, who manages her father's salvage business, Coastal Auto Salvage on Laurel Bay Road in Beaufort, is concerned about the check-payment requirement.
Ninety percent of the company's customers "live day to day," bringing in whatever they can find during odd jobs, she said. She worries they won't be able to cash checks.
"I understand because there are a lot of cases of stolen stuff. People try to bring stolen stuff here, and we work really closely with the Sheriff's Office to stop them," Von Der Mark said. "But I don't think the checks or permits are really going to help with the thefts."
Von Der Mark said about half of the company's sales consist of non-ferrous metals. She said the company already requires sellers to provide driver's license and vehicle information.
"Maybe the people with stolen stuff will go somewhere else. That's fine with us," she said. "But we're afraid some others will go somewhere else, too."
Mauricio Jimenez, owner of M J Metal Recycling Center, one of two scrap-metal recyclers in Hardeeville, said some dealers in Jasper County aren't happy with the change because of the amount of paperwork involved.
But Jimenez said he doesn't want to buy stolen metals.
"The law is better for me. The papers say it's lawfully mine," he said.
While the law may slow thefts, some local dealers think savvy thieves will simply take their stolen wares to Georgia, which has no permitting requirements.
"Some thieves, honestly, may go out and get a permit," Jimenez said. "Others, they'll figure out a way around it."
Follow reporter Cassie Foss at twitter.com/LCBlotter.