Motorists across the U.S. are increasingly being met with a roaring noise when they turn on the ignition due to surging thefts of catalytic converters, law enforcement officials say.
The devices look like a muffler and are attached to a vehicle's emissions system. They're increasingly coveted by thieves because they contain platinum, palladium or rhodium, precious metals that help convert hazardous exhaust emitted by an engine into less harmful gases.
In recent years, the values of all three metals have spiked, with rhodium valued at $14,500 an ounce in December, palladium at $2,336 an ounce and platinum fetching $1,061, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, a nonprofit devoted to combating insurance fraud and vehicle theft.
"As the value of the precious metals contained within the catalytic converters continues to increase, so do the number of thefts of these devices," David Glawe, CEO of the NICB said in a statement.
In 2020 there was an average of roughly 1,200 catalytic converter thefts a month in the U.S., up sharply from an average of about 280 the previous year, according to the organization. All told, reported catalytic converter thefts rose more than 9% to 14,433 in 2020, from 3,389 reported the prior year.
The crime spree has continued in 2021, with police on Monday arresting three suspects in a series of catalytic converter thefts in El Cerrito, California, according to CBS affiliate KPIX in San Francisco. An arrest earlier this month in Federal Heights, Colorado, also led police to a stolen car and roughly 20 catalytic converters in the back seat, another CBS affiliate also reported.
"It sounded like a race car"
In Texas, the police department in Arlington now has two detectives working solely on catalytic converter thefts. The department recorded 253 cases from January to April, compared to just five cases during the same period last year. Texas is among the more than a dozen states considering potential legislation to curb the problem.
Texas resident Nazar Kozak experienced just how brazenly such a theft can occur after thieves sawed off the catalytic converter on the underside of his vehicle during a quick stop at a Fort Worth Target last month. "When I started the van, I thought it was like a Camaro next to me. It's very loud," Kozak told affiliate CBS DFW.
"Removing a catalytic converter takes only minutes using some basic, readily available, battery-operated tools from a local hardware store," Glawe said. "For the vehicle owner, it's costly due to the loss of work, finding and paying for alternate transportation and then paying anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 to get your vehicle fixed."
The thefts are rising, said Eric Mead, manager at Shawn's Master Auto Repair in St. Louis, Missouri. "In the last six months, I'd say we've probably done somewhere between 20 to 30 stolen ones."
One local victim, Derrick Kilgore, had his catalytic converter stolen from his SUV this month, costing him an estimated $1,800 to repair. "As soon as I started it, I knew something was wrong, it sounded like a race car," Kilgore told a local CBS station.
Problem "has really taken off"
Recyclers will pay between $50 and $250 for a catalytic converter, according to the NICB. The metals can be sold for even more if lifted from hybrid gas-electric cars like a Prius. "All the newer hybrid vehicles, they're going for scrap values of anywhere from $800 to $1,500," according to Mead.
Like other parts of the country, the Denver area has also seen a surge in the thefts, with police getting nearly 260 reports of stolen catalytic converters last year, up from 15 the previous year. In January alone, 108 catalytic converter thefts were reported to the Denver Police Department.
"In 2021, it has really taken off," Sergeant George Kenny said.
The problem recently left the staff at a nonprofit in Colorado unable to take recovering addicts to work, as thieves targeting catalytic converters rendered a fleet of passenger vans inoperable.
"Our residents come here to change their lives. To have someone take from them, they were very personally affected by this," Carrie Packard, development director at the Stout Street Foundation in Commerce City, told a local CBS affiliate. The organization is now trying to raise the $20,000 needed to repair the vehicles.
"We have a feeling that the people who are stealing these catalytic converters for quick cash are doing it for some sort of habit. The irony that they would steal from a recovery center is strong," Packard said.