CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A Senate committee on Thursday advanced a bill intended to clamp down on copper theft in West Virginia.The legislation prohibits possession of stolen scrap metal and increases fines for violators. The Senate Judiciary Committee passed a substitute version of the bill -- called the Scrap Metal Theft Prevention Act -- by a unanimous vote. "This gives law enforcement the ability to pull someone over who has illegal items in their vehicle," said Scott Cosco, government relations chief for Frontier Communications, which has sustained phone outages and costly repairs because of copper theft. "There aren't many people who should be driving around with copper wire in the back of their car."The legislation (SB528) also targets scrap metal dealers, requiring them to obtain a business license and document transactions.Under the bill, scrap metal dealers must report suspicious metal sellers to the authorities. "It will assist law enforcement with transient dealers," said Jason Webb, who lobbies for the West Virginia Recyclers Association. "It's heavy regulation of the industry."Scrap metal dealers also must register with the Secretary of State's Office, according to the legislation."This will give us an opportunity to locate all scrap dealers in the state," Cosco said.Reports of copper theft have been widespread in Southern West Virginia, particularly in Cabell, Fayette, Logan, Mason and Mingo counties.Thieves frequently target copper wire inside telephone cables. The thefts have disrupted phone service for thousands of customers.The legislation also targets the sale of catalytic converters to scrap dealers. Thieves cut the emissions control devices from underneath vehicles.People who sell five or more catalytic converters to scrap dealers would have to sign paperwork and submit a fingerprint to document the sale, according to the bill. West Virginia auto dealers have reported a rash of catalytic converter thefts from vehicles on their lots.The copper theft bill next goes to the full Senate.Reach Eric Eyre at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4869.