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Addressing catalytic converter theft

Gone in 60 seconds is how long it takes for an adept thief to steal a catalytic converter

Cat converter theft.jpg

Marin County Sheriff

Protecting the environment from dangerous vehicular exhausts has gotten more expensive in the past year as thefts of catalytic converters have skyrocketed because of a perceived windfall from the precious metals they contain.

Gone in 60 seconds is how long it takes for an adept thief to steal a catalytic converter. The higher the vehicle is off the ground the faster the process can be completed.

exponential spikes in catalytic converter thefts

Published reports reveal police departments around the country are dealing with exponential spikes in catalytic converter thefts.

The Denver Police Department had only 15 devices stolen in all of 2019 then 257 in 2020, but 108 in January of 2021 alone. Wichita, Kansas saw 191 stolen in 2019 followed by a nearly 300 percent increase in 2020 to 547. Kansas City (Missouri) Police saw 158 in 2019, 806 in 2020, and 266 since the beginning of 2021.

Police1 recently polled readers about catalytic converter thefts in their jurisdictions. A total of 1517 people responded, with 74% indicating thefts had increased significantly and 18% indicating thefts had increased somewhat:

Catalytic converter theft poll

“The typical catalytic converter thief can work for a couple of hours and get several catalytic converters that they can sell for a hundred or a hundred and fifty dollars each at a scrapyard,” said Captain Everett C. Babcock, Property Crimes Division, Kansas City (Missouri) Police Department. “The scrapyard will then strip the metals out of the catalytic converter and sell it and still make a very large profit.”

Extracting precious metals not as easy as criminals think

The costly piece of equipment, which can run as high as $3,000 installed and is attached to the vehicle’s exhaust system, removes chemicals harmful to the environment using a honeycomb-like matrix made up of the precious metals palladium, platinum and rhodium. These three elements act as catalysts that burn off harmful carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide into harmless exhaust.

The days of stealing the device for the sake of resale dwindled to more precious metal prospecting as environmental protection controls have expanded. As of March 15, 2021 the price of gold was $1,740 per ounce; palladium was $2,424; rhodium at $24,100; and platinum was at $1,224.

According to Dan Fried, of the Connecticut-based Specialty Metals Smelters and Refiners LLC, many people think the converter is loaded with copious precious metals when in fact it is not. The actual yield of valuable metal is extremely low and requires a more sophisticated process than just whacking it off the device with a hammer.

“The three metals are very tiny amounts,” said Fried. “The platinum is .1 percent, palladium .045 percent and rhodium .0025 percent.”

Fried is not optimistic that there will be a slowing down of thefts of catalytic converters anytime soon since there will always be places for criminals to sell their booty.

Recognizing the trend, Fried said his company recently decided they won’t deal with catalytic converters any longer.

“Too many shady companies calling us that can’t verify if the catalyst was stolen,” he said.

In lieu of the precious metals, a stolen catalytic converter can still reap the thief around $100 sold to a salvage yard but depending on the age and make of the vehicle that price can jump significantly, especially if the buyer knows how to extract the precious metals.

Theft mitigation strategies

Theft mitigation is a struggle according to Babcock. He says targeting known offenders has had limited success because there are so many criminals engaged in catalytic converter theft that it’s like playing “whack-a-mole.” Every time you get one another pops up.

Even if they are caught the likelihood that they will spend time in jail is low said Babcock: “Even if they were to be incarcerated, there are so many of these types of crimes that our jail systems couldn’t accommodate them all.”

The COVID pandemic has made this even more challenging, according to Babcock. With the pandemic affecting available space in jails and detention centers, property crimes suspects being released pending charges at a later time is now the norm.

“We have had suspects arrested several times within a month or two and they are still released pending charges at a later date due to the low-level nature of the crime and jail availability,” Babcock said.

Babcock says the issue is too big to simply arrest our way out of the problem.

“The only thing that might make a difference is legislation that brings strict penalties on the illegal buyers of the catalytic converters,” said Babcock. “Even small fines will probably not be effective in deterring this considering the huge profits that can be made by not complying.”

Some agencies are hosting catalytic converter etching events where residents can get their license plate etched onto the vehicle’s catalytic converter, which helps locate the original owner of the catalytic converter if the part is stolen and recovered.

The value of public education

A prevention campaign, as with any crime, is key. Advising the public of the following could help prevent or slow down catalytic converter thefts in your jurisdiction:

  • Park vehicles in a garage.
  • If not in a garage, park in a well-lit area.
  • Apply a commercial catalytic theft prevention device such as CatClamps or CAT Security.
  • Install an under-vehicle alarm system
  • Mark the vehicle VIN number on the converter with a UV pen. Unfortunately, the VIN is not on the converter.
  • Some DIYers construct a reinforced cage around the catalytic converter.
  • Report the theft to law enforcement immediately.

Joseph J. Kolb, MA, is the executive director for the Southwest Gang Information Center, master instructor for the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy and instructor in the Criminal Justice program at Western New Mexico University. He is also the mail officer for the Santa Fe (NM) County Adult Detention Facility.