If you start your car one morning and hear a loud roar when you hit the gas pedal, you might have been robbed.
That disturbing sound could signal that a thief has cut out the catalytic converter, a device mounted near the tailpipe that changes environmentally hazardous engine exhaust into less harmful gases.
The number of catalytic converter thefts has skyrocketed during the pandemic, driven by high unemployment, more cars sitting in driveways and a spike in the value of the metals used to make the devices, platinum, palladium and rhodium.
Rhodium, for example, was selling at $2,300 an ounce in early January 2019, according to Kitco.com, a precious metals retailer that tracks prices. As of Wednesday, it was $13,250 an ounce.
State legislators have responded with measures to thwart the thieves and prevent the sale of stolen devices. The measures include banning the sale of converters without proof of ownership, tightening scrap metal dealers’ recordkeeping requirements and beefing up criminal penalties.
“The crime is rampant. It has taken off dramatically in the last two years,” said Tully Lehman, spokesperson for the National Insurance Crime Bureau, an industry association set up to combat insurance fraud.
This year, at least 11 states enacted laws addressing catalytic converter thefts or sales, according to Amanda Essex, a criminal justice policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures. At least 10 other states have legislation pending.
In Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill into law in June that makes it a third-degree felony to buy or sell stolen catalytic converters. Sellers must provide proof of ownership and other information to metal recycling centers.
In Minnesota, legislators agreed to spend $400,000 to create a pilot program that will pay for car owners to have their converters engraved with vehicle identification numbers or permanently marked so the parts could be identified if removed.
And in Oregon, a measure goes into effect in January that prohibits scrap metal businesses from buying or receiving catalytic converters except from commercial sellers or the vehicle’s owner. It also sets new recordkeeping requirements for transactions.
“The idea is you can’t have some guy off the street just snatching one and going to the local salvage yard and saying, ‘Hey, I want to sell you this.’ That was what was going on,” said Oregon Democratic state Sen. Chris Gorsek, who sponsored the bill at the request of the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office.
Instead of increasing the punishment, Gorsek said, legislators took a preventive approach. “We’re trying to make it so hard to do this that the hope is they’ll cease this sort of behavior.”
Prosecutors worked with the scrap metal industry to get its support for the measure, which passed overwhelmingly. “The trick was to get everybody on board with this,” Gorsek said.
“Your political philosophy doesn’t matter in a case like this. People from both sides of the aisle were having constituents impacted by it,” he added. “And it’s not just an Oregon problem. It’s a national problem that has been spreading from one side of the country to the other.”
It takes mere minutes for thieves to crawl under a vehicle and saw off a catalytic converter using basic tools. Criminals typically sell them for $50 to $500 to scrapyards or internet buyers, according to law enforcement and insurance fraud officials.
It’s costly for victims, who can end up shelling out $1,000 to $4,000 for a new converter. Drivers who have comprehensive insurance coverage still must pay a deductible; those who don’t must cough up the money out of pocket. Some victims don’t bother to file a claim at all.
Converter thefts have risen dramatically. In 2019, there were 3,389 claims filed, according to a report by the national insurance crime group. In 2020, that number jumped 326% to 14,443.
A July report by State Farm found that its converter theft claims rose nearly 293% nationwide from mid-2020 to mid-2021 compared with the previous year. The company paid out about $34 million to customers, compared with about $9 million the year before.
One reason for the upsurge in these crimes has been the spike in the precious metals’ value, Lehman said.
“Anyone looking to make a quick buck can do it pretty easily,” Lehman said. “The value is good. They’ll get paid well.”
But Lehman noted that the pandemic also has played a major role. It has resulted in people losing income, more people working at home and leaving their cars sitting outside, supply chain disruptions that have caused shortages of rare metals and limitations on police resources.
While thieves can hit any car, officials say prime targets have been SUVs and fleet vehicles, such as trucks and buses, which are easier to slide underneath, and Toyota Prius hybrids, which have two catalytic converters.
School bus fleets have been hit hard, officials say, because thieves know there is a large concentration sitting in bus yards overnight, unattended.
In Wisconsin, a school bus association official testified at a state Senate hearing in August that the thefts this year have prevented school buses from picking up students. The converters cost between $1,200 and $1,800 a bus to replace, she said.
“If a bus yard is targeted, it could easily cause a school district to have to cancel classes while buses are repaired,” testified Cherie Hime, the Wisconsin School Bus Association’s executive director. “Even with security cameras and bright exterior lights in the parking lots, thieves will boldly enter and quickly take what they are seeking, without a thought to the extensive loss to others.”
Law enforcement agencies have tried to crack down on catalytic converter thefts.
In Mesa, Arizona, where there was just one reported case in 2019 and 431 in 2021 as of mid-September, the police department and the Arizona attorney general’s office conducted an undercover operation over the summer; several suspects were arrested.
In September, police in the Omaha, Nebraska, area arrested 15 people after a months-long investigation into catalytic converter thefts.
Some police departments have held events for drivers, offering to etch vehicle registration numbers on their converters for free.
Wisconsin lawmakers also have focused on making it more difficult to sell a stolen device. Last month, the Wisconsin Senate unanimously passed a measure that would require that anyone selling a converter to a scrap dealer be at least 18 years old and show identification and proof of ownership. Dealers would have to maintain sales records, and first-time violators could face a $1,000 fine and 90 days in jail. The bill is now in the Assembly.
Wisconsin Democratic state Sen. Lena Taylor, who co-authored the measure with a Republican colleague, said the issue crosses party lines and geography.
Taylor, who is from Milwaukee, said she has gotten calls and emails from constituents who have been victimized, including a church-based program that connects unemployed people with jobs and provides them transportation.
She said thieves stole converters from many of the program’s vans, which cost a lot to fix. The program also had to put transportation assistance on hold.
Indiana Republican state Sen. Jack Sandlin knows about catalytic converter thefts firsthand. His own church had three converters cut off small buses it uses, he said, and had to pay thousands of dollars for new ones.
“It’s been a huge issue all over the state,” said Sandlin, who authored a bill this year to boost the crime from a misdemeanor to a felony. The measure got overwhelming bipartisan support, and Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb signed it into law in April.
Sandlin, a former police officer, said the state already had recordkeeping requirements for merchants who buy converters, so the legislation aimed to deter such thefts.
“If you’re a mom living with a couple of kids in an apartment and working a job that’s not high paying,” he said, “and someone cuts your catalytic converter and now you’ve got to come up with $1,200 to make that vehicle workable again, that’s the impact we’re seeing.”