Catalytic converter thefts continue to rise; tips to protect yourself from this costly heist

Numerous catalytic converters on display that have been removed from vehicles in Mesquite, Nev., March 28, 2021 | Photo courtesy of the Mesquite Police Department, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — The number of catalytic converter thefts has surged over the past year, as these devices full of precious metals are hot targets for thieves and can take only minutes to remove — but are costly to replace.

Numerous catalytic converters on display that have been removed from vehicles in Mesquite, Nev., March 28, 2021 | Photo courtesy of the Mesquite Police Department, St. George News

After receiving a number of reports involving the theft of catalytic converters, the Mesquite Police Department issued an advisory that was posted on the department’s Facebook page last weekend.

A catalytic converter is an important part of a vehicle’s exhaust system and is a device that is full of precious metals, such as platinum and palladium. To replace these converters is very costly, the advisory states, and larger trucks, vans and busses are the vehicles most targeted by thieves.

Mesquite Police Sgt. Wyatt Oliver told St. George News it was when the nationwide problem hit close to home – with five thefts reported within the last month or so, that the department decided to issue the advisory – along with safety tips to reduce the risk of becoming a victim of such a theft.

As it turns out, Washington County is not immune to this type of criminal activity either, gauging from the number of thefts reported recently throughout the region.

The St. George Police Department has had a “rash” of reports involving the theft of catalytic converters, department spokesperson Officer Tiffany Atkin told St. George News.

Officers in Hurricane have received two reports of catalytic converter thefts within the last month, said Hurricane Police officer Ken Thompson, while in Washington City, the number of theft reports associated with the converters has remained fairly static, Washington City Police Chief Jason Williams said.

Dixie State Police Chief Blair Barfuss told St. George News the department has had a cluster of catalytic converter thefts reported around the university. He also said that many of the reports involved a Toyota Prius, which seems to be the make and model targeted by thieves.

Barfuss went on to say they were able to track a number of the thefts to a couple of suspects who came to the St. George area from Las Vegas, Nevada, adding that charges have been submitted to the Washington County Attorney’s Office for review. He also mentioned there were a number of thefts reported in the Cedar City area as well – many, in fact.

Last month, a suspect was arrested in Cedar City, and prior to being transported to jail, officers searching the vehicle for stolen property reportedly found a black duffel bag containing multiple catalytic converters that had been cut from vehicles – an arrest that was covered by Cedar City News.

Additionally, a string of catalytic converter thefts was reported at Southern Utah University in Cedar City in January involving multiple vehicles that were stripped of the converters, primarily Honda Accords and Toyota Priuses, as previously reported by Cedar City News.

Why the catalytic converter?

A catalytic converter is a device that looks like a small muffler and is designed to convert the hazardous exhaust emitted by an engine into less harmful gasses – but it’s the precious metals used to manufacture the devices that make them so attractive to thieves.

Photo of a catalytic converter on the underside of a vehicle with a red arrow depicting the location of the converter, Mesquite, Nev., March 28, 2021 | Photo courtesy of the Mesquite Police Department, St. George News

The price of palladium and other precious metals used in the manufacturing process has also seen an increase in recent years, and as the price continues to climb so does the number of thefts involving these converters.

When the catalytic converter has been removed, the vehicle will make a loud roaring sound that will get louder when the gas pedal is pressed and may also make a sputtering sound when changing speed or may not drive as smoothly.

St. George News reached out to Mike Mueller, owner of Red Rock Mechanical, who said thieves have been stealing catalytic converters for “years and years,” and they typically target larger vehicles, such as motorhomes, larger trucks and vans, because the larger the vehicle, the bigger the catalytic converter, which means a higher volume of the precious metals criminals are seeking.

Just last week, Mueller said, a customer brought in a truck to have a catalytic converter installed after discovering his had been stolen.

A converter can be cut or removed from a vehicle, depending on the make and model, in as little as 15 minutes or less, while other vehicle types require more specialized tools.

Restricting access to the undercarriage of the vehicle is the best option to ward off thieves vying for these converters, he said, which can be accomplished by installing security cameras and parking in well-lit areas that are secure as possible.

Taking safety precautions to ward off the thieves is a good investment as well, since the costs associated with replacing a converter is not cheap – ranging from $500 to $2,000 or more in some cases, depending on the size of the vehicle, Mueller said.

Thefts, property crimes and COVID-19

Nationwide, catalytic converter thefts have followed a similar upward trend as other property crimes, including car thefts and carjackings, as well as vehicle break-ins – a trend that began in March of last year followed by the stay-at-home orders issued nationwide, according to Allstate.

The increase is supported by the data. In 2018, for example, there were 108 catalytic converter thefts reported per month on average. The following year that number nearly tripled with 282 thefts reported. But in 2020, those numbers skyrocketed, the analysis showed, with more than 1,200 stolen per month on average, according to an analysis by the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

Stock image of mechanic’s shop | Photo by Anon-tae/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

Put simply, the number of thefts rose from 108 to 1,200 in three years, according to the bureau’s analytic study.

At the same time, the value of the precious metals has also seen a dramatic spike, including rhodium that is one of several metals used to make these converters and one that was valued at $14,500 per ounce as of December.

David Glawe, National Insurance Crime Bureau president and CEO, described catalytic converter thefts as “an opportunistic crime,” and said there is a clear connection between times of crisis, limited resources and a disruption of the supply chain that drives criminals toward these precious metals.

The problem has not escaped the attention of legislatures in 18 states who are currently evaluating actions to curb the problem, and in Utah, metal thefts have been an issue across the state from as far back as 2009.

So much so, the issue was addressed during a Congressional sub-committee hearing on crime and drugs held that same year when Sen. Orrin Hatch said during his testimony that “ever enterprising thieves discovered a new opportunity for crime,” by stealing metal that would be converted quickly into cash by reselling it to scrap metal dealers.

Utah is also one of several states that have enacted laws addressing the theft of metal. The Metal Theft Amendments bill enacted in Utah in 2009 requires dealers to maintain records of all buyers, including their name and driver’s license number or other photo ID and includes a section on catalytic converters. It also makes a defendant liable for damages caused during the course of stealing them.

In Arizona, a law was passed that prohibits any purchase of a catalytic converter unless it is from a motor vehicle repair business or recycler and the purchase of certain metals is prohibited altogether.

Nevada enacted legislation that not only requires metal processors to maintain records of all purchases but also requires metal purchasers to be licensed.

Mesquite Police Department, Mesquite, Nevada, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Mesquite Police Department, St. George News

The Mesquite Police Department posted a list of safety tips to help consumers reduce the risk of becoming a victim of this type of theft, and while nothing is fool-proof and thefts may still occur, Oliver said, at the very least, they may assist law enforcement in identifying the thieves thus preventing additional thefts.

The first tip is to check your vehicle frequently and be sure to start the vehicle in an effort to determine the catalytic converter is still there. Vehicle owners can also install security cameras and an anti-theft device, many of which are available on the internet and are designed to protect the converter from theft.

Painting the catalytic converter using a high-temperature fluorescent orange paint and inscribing the vehicle identification number onto the device can also help and may deter a scrap metal dealer from accepting it.

Mueller said the best bet is to make sure the vehicle is parked in a location that acts as a deterrent.

“Anywhere that has ample lighting and high visibility that lets these guys know if they climb under your vehicle, there is a very good chance they’ll get caught.”

The complete list of safety tips can be accessed by clicking here.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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