Across the country, in big cities, small towns and rural expanses, thieves are targeting auto parts — with a prime focus on catalytic converters.
The catalytic devices convert pollutants from motor vehicle engines into less-toxic emissions. They are stolen and sold to metal recyclers or in some instances body shops in need of auto parts.
The converters, also known as CATs, can fetch anywhere between $50 and $1,400, according to police departments and insurance agencies across the country.
“They are targeting the metals in the mufflers which they can sell to a metal scrap dealer, for around $200 to $400. They work fast, and can steal the item in less than two minutes. We have not caught any of the suspects but suspect they are a traveling group,” said Lieutenant Mike Budreau with the Medford Police Department in southern Oregon.
The city of more than 85,000 people saw 37 catalytic converter thefts in 2021 and nine so far this year, Budreau said.
Medford is not alone.
CAT burglars have been on the rise stealing catalytic converters from dealerships, businesses and residences in cities and regions ranging from Miami, Baltimore and the Washington D.C. area to parts of Delaware and Maryland’s Eastern Shore as well as Bend, Oregon, Chicago and Fresno, California.
An alleged armed converter thief was shot and killed by police in Sugar Land, Texas near Houston during an alleged heist by a crew at a loft development Thursday, May 5. Other suspects escaped during the shooting.
According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which tracks crimes reported to insurance companies , the number of reported catalytic converter thefts raced from roughly 1,300 in 2018 to more than 52,000 in 2021.
Higher costs of metals because of inflation can help fetch more money from recyclers for thieves. Shortages of auto parts because of the impacts of the pandemic and supply chain problems could be driving some illegal demand for converters, law enforcement officials said. COVID shutdowns in China, inflation in the U.S. and unpredictable demand have hampered automotive supply chains worldwide — including for parts.
Gone in sixty seconds
Police in Las Vegas report experienced crews can strip CATs quickly with Ford and Chevrolet pickup trucks, Honda Accords, Jeep Patriots and Ford Econoline vans among the top targets.
Like with other theft rings, police say some of the catalytic converter crooks are mobile and will move operations from state to state.
“We believe the suspects are from out of town and are taking the converters out of state. Converters are targeted due to the current prices of the precious metals contained in the convertors which include platinum, rhodium and palladium. Unscrupulous recycling centers will pay $50 to $250 per converter,” said Todd Kleisner, deputy chief of police in Janesville, Wisconsin.
Kleisner has seen commercial trucks as well as hybrid vehicles such as the Toyota Prius targeted by thieves usually seeking money from metal recycling. Stolen hybrid converters can fetch as much as $1,400 in the underground market, according to other police and insurance agencies.
U.S. and NATO sanctions against Russia (and its ally Belarus) over the invasion of Ukraine have cut supplies of raw materials (including precious metals found in catalytic converters) as well as auto parts worldwide.
“There have been rumors the converters are being sent overseas due to raw materials shortages over there,” Kleisner said.
The Cheyenne Police Department in Wyoming saw 116 converter thefts in 2021 and 19 so far this year. Thieves can target commercial and personal vehicles. They can also be lightning fast.
“This criminal activity can take place during the day or at night. Thieves will crawl underneath the vehicle and cut the converter out with a saw – some have gotten so good at removing them, that it can be done within minutes,” said Detective Bureau Lieutenant Adam DeBall with the Cheyenne PD. “In most cases, you won’t know this has happened until you start your car. When you press the gas pedal, you may hear a loud noise.”
Law enforcement in Wyoming, Oregon and other states are also working with recycling centers to combat the theft rings but are making a limited number of arrests. Similar efforts have been previously undertaken with copper thefts, with varying degrees of success.
Replacing a stolen catalytic converter is also not cheap. It can cost $1,000 to $3,000 to replace the emission equipment, according to NICB and the Maryland Vehicle Theft Prevention Council.
Police in Yonkers, New York have seen a rise in converter thefts with rings coming from the Bronx and other boroughs of nearby New York City.
Dean Politopouous, public information officer for the Yonkers Police Department said law enforcement agencies in the region are trying to raise public awareness about auto parts thefts targeting everyplace from car dealerships and commercial parking lots to residential driveways.
Politopouous said thieves can make off with converter in two minutes and they can fetch “several hundred dollars.”
“Easy money,” said Politopouous of the motivations for the thefts adding police concerns about reductions in pre-trial detainments for defendants facing other criminal charges.
In the Northeast, thieves have targeted Hondas, Nissans and Toyotas. Other parts of the country have seen CAT thieves go after hybrids as well as trucks and commercial vans.
“If you hear power or cutting tools outside during night hours, it’s probably a CAT theft and they should notify the local police,” Politopouous said.
Police and car insurance companies have a variety of other tips to help avoid CAT. Those include buying an anti-theft device, getting the CAT welded to the bottom chassis of the war, etching the car’s VIN number or your license plate number onto the converter, install motion sensors as well as parking in secure and well-lit area.
The boom in CAT thefts has also spawned a cottage industry of anti-theft products that car dealers, fleet owners and consumers can use to lock the emissions devices.
A variety of companies offer locking devices aimed at discouraging catalytic crooks. Some require installation by an auto mechanic.
• Toledo, Ohio-based CAT Clamp has locking converter cages that range in price from $181 to $920.
• Cat Security near Sacramento offers anti-theft shields for Honda, Nissan, Toyota and Chevrolet vehicles between $190 and $500.
• Another California company, Santa-Clara-based MillerCat sells a line of anti-theft locking devices for hybrids and popular models such as the Honda Accord, Toyota Tacoma and Toyota Prius for between $75 and $570.
In Texas, a company called Converter Guard offers an etching set and will put a car’s CAT into a national database for $249. If the CAT is stolen, the company promises to pay up to $2,500 in replacement costs.
New York state officials have also launched a new etching and registration effort with the car dealers with police (including the New York City Police Department) to tag and track stolen converters. Parts of New York have seen a 200% increase in thefts of the emissions control device.
“The sharp increase in the number of catalytic converters being stolen across the country has police and legislators searching for a way to curb the thefts,” said Nichole Soriano, regional director for Travelers Insurance Co. and chair of the New York Anti Car Theft and Fraud Association at May 6 announcement of the tagging effort.
Other police jurisdictions across the U.S. report a variety of intensity when it comes to the volume of CAT thefts.
The Klamath County Sheriff’s Office in southern Oregon said the rural county occasionally sees catalytic thefts but the mostly rural county has not seen recent spikes, according to spokesman Brandon Fowler.
In Florida, the city of Sarasota had 5 converter thefts last year and one reported theft this year, according to the city’s police department. The Florida city has a population of more than 57,000 people.
Across the state, police in Fort Lauderdale reported 45 CAT thefts so far this year, according to crime statistics from the city’s police department.