Police aim to deter catalytic converter crimes

A school bus, local businesses and residents are all among those impacted by attempted or actual thefts of catalytic converters.

As those thefts are rising nationally, local police departments encourage residents to keep an eye on their own vehicles and those of their neighbors to help prevent those quick thefts and related damage.

Catalytic converter thefts in the U.S. increased 1,215% between 2019 and 2022, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

The National Automobile Dealers Association says converters can be stolen easily from unattended vehicles. Because they aren’t readily traceable, there’s a lucrative market for stolen parts, and those thefts are collectively costing businesses and individuals millions of dollars.

What’s the damage?

Catalytic converters, described by the New York Times as looking like a metal hot water bottle, are part of vehicle exhaust systems. They remove many toxic elements from exhaust gasses as they exit the vehicle, reducing pollution.

Thefts of catalytic converters usually take less than a few minutes. Converters, also called “cats,” are in demand because they include precious metals such as platinum, rhodium and palladium.

Converters usually can be sold on the black market for $20 to $350 each, NADA says, with some large, rare converters yielding more at recycling facilities. They are not one of the 18 vehicle parts that must be marked with a vehicle identification number (VIN) or a number traceable to a VIN.

And, at a time of supply chain woes, converters’ value could keep increasing because of the Ukrainian/Russian conflict. Russia exports about 40% of the world’s palladium, according to Moody’s Analytics, as noted by The New York Times.

In addition to the cost for a replacement converter, thieves sometimes cause extra damage to the vehicle while pursuing the converter, increasing the cost for auto owners and increasing the time they’re without their vehicle while repairs are made.

NADA says unlucky vehicle owners will need to pay an average of $2,500 for a replacement converter. And, if more exhaust components are broken during the theft, such as oxygen sensors, repairs can be more costly.

A higher bill was in order for Centerville-Abington Community Schools, which discovered it was a victim of catalytic converter theft when a driver tried to start an activity bus on Feb. 21 and noticed a loud sound.

The suspect not only had crawled underneath the bus to remove a converter, but in the process, did approximately $7,000 in damage, Assistant Superintendent Sean Stevenson recently told the school board.

CACS officials shared security camera footage with police in its quest to pursue criminal charges.

Centerville Police Chief Ed Buchholz said the theft from the school bus was the first catalytic converter theft he’s aware of in the town. He called it an active case that has been submitted to Wayne County’s prosecutor’s office for warrants to be issued.

Buchholz credits good surveillance video from the schools and from neighbors’ video doorbells for their help with the case.

Because cameras have become more common, Buchholz said police canvas the surrounding areas when beginning investigations and ask whether the property owners have surveillance cameras or doorbells that provide recordings.

‘See something, say something’

Richmond Police Department Capt. Curt Leverton said thefts of converters have been a steady issue for its officers for quite some time. He also recently chatted with an Indiana State Police crime analyst who agreed that converter thefts are not only a local but also a state and national issue.

Leverton noted great collaboration between RPD and Wayne County Sheriff’s Office on theft cases when opportunities arise. He recalled a collaborative arrest being made in one case because a business name had been etched on the converter, but obtaining such clear evidence can be rare.

Richmond-area cases come in spurts, Leverton said, with four or five converter thefts happening suddenly and then a lull before another wave. Although converters are sometimes stolen in residential areas, RPD sees a few more cases in business settings such as parking lots.

For instance, RPD announced an arrest in the early hours of March 3 after police found a man allegedly attempting to cut and steal a converter from a local business vehicle.

A concerned citizen who lives near the area of Bader Services at 110 W. Main St. in Richmond saw a suspicious person. Realizing something wasn’t quite right at the headquarters for electricians, plumbers and heating/cooling technicians, they contacted law enforcement.

Bader is just a few blocks from the sheriff’s department and RPD, so RPD officers quickly arrived and arrested the suspect on a preliminary charge of theft of motor vehicle parts or accessories, a Level 6 felony.

In a news release, RPD officials called the incident “a great case of ‘If you see something, say something.’”

Cambridge City Chief of Police Richard Roberts said Cambridge City so far has been lucky regarding catalytic converter thefts, recalling the town likely had one each in 2022 and 2021, but as Roberts crossed his fingers, he encouraged residents to be vigilant.

“One of the best deterrents is a neighbor that is willing to call in what they see especially at the time it’s happening,” Roberts said. “If neighbors looked out for each other and were willing to get involved (in neighborhood watch groups also), criminals would steer clear of their neighborhoods.”

Another westside Richmond business, Hallmark Auto Sales, had a catalytic converter stolen at about 7 a.m. March 6 from a 2013 GMC Terrain.

Hallmark’s owner, Jason Hartman, said he also had a catalytic converter stolen from a Jeep Wrangler about a year ago on the lot at 2403 National Road W. Unfortunately, he’s still not able to sell the vehicle after about $1,500 in repairs since the check engine light won’t go off. Hartman learned some wires might have been cut during the theft.

Hartman also didn’t have the right video surveillance equipment and didn’t quickly notice the vehicle’s damage. Soon after, he made improvements to help in case another theft is discovered.

On March 6, Hartman reviewed the footage about three hours after the vandalism happened. He saw a suspicious person disappear near the vehicle and heard a saw running. That prompted an inspection of the Terrain and then a call to police. He also posted on social media, hoping to seek tips and prevent a potential repeat visit from the suspect.

Hartman said his initial reaction to the latest theft was anger, but he later felt more sad than angry that someone thought their only option was to steal because of financial, drug or mental health issues. He’s hoping the suspect is caught and gets needed help.

However, after two catalytic converter thefts, Hartman wants to deter future incidents, or give police as much information as possible if he has another incident. He’s now adding more cameras at different angles that enhance views of faces and license plates.

While neighborhood watchfulness to prevent thefts might be ideal, national organizations affiliated with vehicle and insurance industries are advocating for decisive action on a federal level.

Leverton said the only way police can determine that parts have been stolen is if they have an ID number on them that can be traced to the owner. He said local police would benefit from strengthened statutes allowing officers to do more when they see what they believe are stolen converters.

RPD’s patrol officers occasionally find converters while conducting traffic stops, but they have no way to prove where they came from, or that they were stolen, since most lack identifying information, Leverton said.

Some states have enacted laws to combat the crime, such as creating a grant program to etch vehicle ID numbers onto the converters or make catalytic converter theft a felony.

NADA argues a federal framework is needed to assist local police because the crime frequently involves trafficking stolen parts across state lines.

Several U.S. senators and representatives have introduced NADA’s Preventing Auto Recycling Theft Act (PART) Act. NADA shared a brief on its website Jan. 31 encouraging other lawmakers to co-sponsor the bipartisan House Resolution 621 and Senate Bill 154 in Congress. Some of the co-sponsors already include Sen. Mike Braun and Rep. Jim Baird of Indiana and Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio.

The bill would include a $7 million grant program for dealers or other approved entities to voluntarily stamp VINs onto catalytic converters already on the road at no cost to their vehicle’s owner; requiring traceable ID numbers on new converters when they’re assembled.

It also would increase record-keeping requirements for converters’ purchasers and establish a federal criminal penalty up to five years in jail for the theft, trafficking or known purchase of stolen converters.

Tips to prevent thefts of catalytic converters

Catalytic converter thefts from personal and commercial vehicles are on the rise nationally.

  • Owners of trucks and SUVs should be extra vigilant: converters are easier to steal because it’s easier to get under vehicles that sit high off the ground. And, hybrid vehicles are vulnerable because their converters utilize larger quantities of precious metals.
  • Those who must park on the street or driveway should try to place their vehicles in well-lit areas to prevent thefts, such as under streetlights, or a dusk-to-dawn light or motion-sensing lights on the property.
  • A recommended deterrent: consider contacting a mechanic or muffler shop to see if they will spray paint your catalytic converter with a stripe of high-temperature, brightly colored spray paint and/or etch your vehicle ID number on the converter, or do it yourself. Some shops around the country are offering the service at no charge.
  • Another option is purchasing a shield or cover that helps protect the catalytic converter by deterring potential thieves, who might believe the shield will take too much time to bypass. Some shields are designed for particular vehicles, while a few are universal.
  • If your catalytic converter is stolen, contact law enforcement and your insurer. However, insurance coverage of converter thefts can be rare.

Sources: Richard Roberts and Ed Buchholz, chiefs for Cambridge City and Centerville police; Richmond Police Department Capt. Curt Leverton; National Insurance Crime Bureau; Autoweek

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A version of this article appeared in the March 15 2023 print edition of the Western Wayne News.

Millicent Martin Emery is a reporter and editor for the Western Wayne News.