Thieves steal catalytic converters from parked cars, as precious metal prices soar

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It only took a few minutes, late at night, as Harvey Briggs was sleeping in his home in suburban Madison, Wisconsin. Without a garage, he had a brand new Toyota Land Cruiser parked in his driveway, next to his bedroom window.

“When I woke up I jumped in the car, hit the ‘start’ button and it immediately looked like a NASCAR racer,” said Briggs, an independent marketing consultant. “I turned it off, crawled under the car and found that the driver’s side catalytic converter had been cut” overnight, he told NBC News.

Catalytic converter thefts have skyrocketed from an average of 108 per month in 2018 to 2,347 in December 2020, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. And some estimates suggest the figure may have doubled again this year, in part because of soaring prices for rare metals used in emissions control devices.

Platinum, the primary metal, hit a low of around $ 622 an ounce in early 2020, but then climbed to nearly $ 1,300 later in the year. Palladium has fallen as low as $ 617 an ounce in recent years, but surged to nearly $ 3,000 in April, an all-time high.

There aren’t many of these metals in the typical catalytic converter – between 3 and 7 grams of platinum – but it doesn’t take a lot of effort for a skilled thief to nab one of the devices.

“If you have a sharp saw, you can go through an exhaust (pipe) pretty quickly” to get the converter, said Lance Maze, service manager at Varsity Ford, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The thieves then take the devices to scrap dealers before setting off to steal again, preying on vehicles that use the rarer metals in their catalysts, such as the Toyota Prius and other hybrids. They also target vans and other trucks that are above the ground, as it is easier to crawl underneath.

For owners, it can be a big surprise when they turn on their car and hear a loud roar, rather than a muffled exhaust note. What might at first look like a worn muffler turns out to be a large gap in the exhaust system where the catalytic converter was mounted.

This is only part of the problem. The devices are an essential part of the emission control system of every modern gasoline or diesel vehicle. As the exhaust gases pass, these rare metals cause the unburned fuel to burn completely, so that what comes out of the exhaust pipe contains a minimum of nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and other pollutants that cause smog. No converter equals a lot of dirty air.

What to do? Authorities are cracking down on unscrupulous scrap dealers who intentionally wink and nod their heads when thieves show up with their ill-gotten possessions. And that’s not just limited to catalytic converters. In recent years, police have reported an increase in thefts of all kinds of metal objects, such as copper pipes torn from unoccupied buildings, as well as aluminum siding and gutters.

Efforts to crack down on junkyard dealers have had limited success, with a bill proposed to the Michigan legislature in 2014 severely watered down by the time it was passed. However, some places are now becoming more aggressive. In Reno, Nevada, the city’s Police Department and Commercial Compliance Division cite junkyard dealers who don’t keep good records of who they’ve bought from – and then provide that information to the city.

At the end of last month, authorities in Torrance, Calif., Ended a three-month crackdown on catalytic converter thieves, arresting 20 people.

“The prices of rhodium or palladium in it are so out of control right now,” Sgt. Mark Ponegalek, Torrance Police spokesman, told the Los Angeles Times. “The profit margin is too good for crooks.”

Experts offer several ways to reduce your own risk of being targeted.

Parking in a locked garage is the safest option, especially at night, or using a garage or restricted lot during the day when you are at work or running errands.

Remember to have your vehicle’s VIN number engraved on the converter. Some owners have the converters painted a bright color – using high temperature paints – which can signal when it may have been stolen.

After his SUV was stolen, Briggs said he plans to install motion-sensing spotlights and a camera outside his house. He hopes this will deter future theft, or at least help identify a thief.

Some motorists also install anti-theft cages and hoods that rivet into the underbody of a vehicle. These claim to make it harder for thieves to hack. But they can also create problems. Catalytic converters heat up when they burn exhaust gases, and it could present a fire hazard if that heat cannot dissipate into the surrounding air. They could also make it more difficult to repair a vehicle’s exhaust system, if necessary.

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